Florida requires teens to pass a 10th-grade English-language arts test to receive a high school diploma.
That includes students who still have not learned English.
Rep. Susan Valdes, a Tampa Democrat who served on the Hillsborough School Board, wants to put an end to that requirement for those English language learners.
“Give me a test in a language I don’t know, I’m going to draw you a really pretty Christmas tree on the Scantron response sheet,” Valdes said, noting she has seen the anguish in the faces of students who are trying but struggling. “It gets to a point where some of these students just give up on themselves.”
Her bill (HB 143) would still require the students to demonstrate gains learning the language over time. But if they’re enrolled in the English language learner system while in high school, they would be exempted from the graduation requirement to pass the state exam.
Her bill is connected to a string of efforts over several years to protect English language learners from being tested in non-native languages. The Florida Department of Education consistently has resisted calls to offer its exams in other languages, such as Spanish and Haitian Creole, even despite federal guidance to make “every effort” to test students in their own language.
In the 2019 session, Rep. Cindy Polo and Sen. Annette Taddeo filed a bill to mandate native-language exams. Sen. Victor Torres submitted legislation to have Florida offer an alternate exam in Spanish.
Those measures never received a hearing.
Valdes held out more hope for her legislation, in part because it came from students at Armwood High School in Hillsborough County.
“The kids brought the idea,” she said. “I’m carrying on the tradition that went by the wayside of ‘There Ought to Be a Law.’”
Former Rep. Kevin Ambler, a Carrollwood Republican, worked with Hillsborough schools to have students compete to have their ideas presented as a bill to the Florida Legislature. After he ended his terms, the idea faded away.
She told Education Committee chairwoman Rep. Jennifer Sullivan whose idea it was, and said Sullivan sounded open to considering the measure.
“It may have an opportunity to be heard,” Valdes said.
Knowing it can take five to seven years to master a new language, she was hopeful that the Legislature might provide some relief to the students.
“One test shouldn’t determine the rest of your life,” Valdes said.