Florida’s debate over how to test its more than 265,000 students still learning English has churned for more than a decade, with calls for exams in children’s native languages regularly falling flat with the officials in charge.
In 2019, none of the bills filed in the state Legislature on the subject received a single hearing. The Florida Department of Education, meanwhile, has steadfastly held firm in its view that it would not provide tests in anything but English — even in the face of federal guidelines to make “every effort” to develop exams in the state’s most used other languages.
Might things change in 2020?
State Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Miami Democrat who sponsored one of the bills last year, suggests the odds are improving.
Taddeo has filed legislation addressing the issue (SB 678), and said Thursday that conversations about the need to assess students’ knowledge rather than language acquisition are taking place in corners of the government where they didn’t occur before — including with the Department of Education.
She credited the growing involvement of Republican lawmakers in tackling the topic that previously had attracted mostly Democrats.
“We have a lot of co-sponsors, especially from Miami-Dade, because we all know what this means for the people who have to take the tests,” Taddeo said.
One in five Miami-Dade students is still learning English, according to state data.
On the Senate side, deputy Republican leader Anitere Flores of Miami is on board, in addition to several Democrats including Sen. Janet Cruz of Tampa and Sen. Victor Torres of Kissimmee. In the House, increasingly influential Rep. Vance Aloupis, R-Miami, and Rep. Ana Maria Rodriguez, R-Doral, have proposed an identical measure (HB 515), with the backing of several Democrats including Rep. Susan Valdes of Tampa and Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando.
Aloupis, viewed as close to Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, has been heading talks with the state on how the testing proposal could be made viable, Taddeo said. Rodriguez, though new to the House, has strong support among Senate Republican leaders, who have been supporting her bid to replace term-limited Flores in Senate District 39.
The civil rights group UNIDOSUS has met with some of those Senate leaders, including incoming president Sen. Wilton Simpson, and found them to be “fine” with the proposal, Taddeo said. Simpson could not be reached for comment.
“The discussions are happening, and are good,” Taddeo said.
This latest bill takes a slightly different approach to the issue of native-language testing than previous attempts. In one key difference, it addresses the ability to evaluate the knowledge of youngsters entering kindergarten — something that advocates have noted is difficult enough without taking into account a child’s language needs.
The proposal would have the DOE adapt its school readiness screeners into languages other than English, beginning with the two most prevalent languages in the state. Florida students speak hundreds of languages, but as Taddeo observed, starting with Spanish and Haitian-Creole would tackle the concern of about 80 percent of them.
As the department would move through the grade levels in providing native-language versions of the required tests, the legislation would continue to prioritize the two primary additional languages in a time frame to be determined.
The bill also would give parents the opportunity to choose whether they want their children to be tested in English or one of the other languages. Some families, and some lawmakers, have contended that assimilating into English better serves the children, and offering this option from the kindergarten level on up would speak to that concern.
At the same time, it would provide options for families that continue to use “heritage languages” at home, and who might not be in English language learner programs in school. And it would have the DOE identify approved alternative tests in other languages that students could take in place of the state exams, similar to how they can currently use an SAT score to substitute for a 10th-grade language arts result, for instance.
Another possible signal that optimism is warranted comes from a separate bill that focuses on a different aspect of testing for English learners.
The Senate Education Committee recently gave its unanimous support to legislation from Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, that would waive the 10th-grade language arts test as a graduation requirement for teens still in English language learner programs. That vote, though just one of many scheduled for the bill, signaled at least an acknowledgement that the issues deserve further airing.
Taddeo looked forward to the discussions.
“We’re in talks with different folks about if we need to edit it,” she said. “The response has been not bad.”