Are state assessments fair to English language learners? One California district takes the question to court.
by Naomi Dillon / American School Board Journal
Coachella Valley Unified School District couldn’t be farther from Coachella Valley, even though it’s right next door. The valley is home to acres of golf courses, high-end retail centers, and luxury resorts like Palm Springs. The school district encompasses an area of mostly arid and dusty land, where the median family income hovers around $30,000.
Many families can scarcely afford to hover, instead migrating in and out of the district as they follow the crops. Education -- the key to escaping the cycle of poverty -- is valued, but it’s secondary to survival.
The daily reality for these migrant families is felt within the Coachella school district, which is caught between state and federal accountability measures as it tries to educate a growing population of students whose native language is not English. Making ends meet academically has become an increasingly improbable task for Coachella, where 70 percent of the students are classified as English Language Learners or ELL.
Under California law, all ELL students must take state tests in English after only one year of instruction -- a requirement that perpetually leaves districts like Coachella “in need of improvement.” Under NCLB, districts can omit scores of ELL students for three years and even up to an additional two years after that, while the students learn English.
“The language in No Child Left Behind is pretty clear: There need to be accommodations that yield valid and reliable results,” says Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, president of Californians Together, a consortium of 16 statewide organizations seeking an equal and high-quality education for ELL students. “We don’t have that here. We assess in English. It’s the same test for everyone.”
Coachella’s school board -- joined by nine other school districts and civil rights organizations such as Californians Together -- has sued the state over how it tests ELL students. While the lawsuit focuses on getting new tests developed and modified instead of getting more money, its outcome promises to be no less influential in how states and communities assess the knowledge of the nation’s 5.1 million English Language Learners.
“The fact is, you need to have highly qualified teachers, tutoring programs, teachers’ aides, and smaller classes if you want any chance of these kids learning English, let alone learning core subjects and meeting academic standards,” says Tim Hogan, executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, which won its case against the Arizona legislature over ELL funding.
Why the conflict?
Nationwide, the number of ELL students has almost doubled over the past decade and now makes up a little more than 10 percent of the estimated 49.5 million schoolchildren in the U.S. Almost 30 percent of the nation’s ELL students -- 1.6 million -- attend schools in California.
If current trends continue, the Urban Institute predicts, immigrant children will make up 30 percent of the nation’s total student population by 2015. And the migration pattern is spreading to nontraditional states such as Arkansas, Kansas, and Nebraska, which saw its ELL population increase by 320 percent from 1993-94 to 2003-04.
In Coachella Valley, the growth of the ELL population has been even more pronounced. Of the 14,621 students the district educated in 2003-04, a total of 9,813 are designated ELL and 2,557 are classified Fluent English Proficient. In the elementary and middle grades, 13.6 percent of all Coachella students met or exceeded state English and language arts standards, while 16 percent passed math tests in 2003-04. Twelve percent of high school students met standards in English and language arts; a slightly higher percentage -- 12.8 -- met math standards.
“Despite pretty clear research that it takes somewhere between five to seven years to acquire English sufficient to be able to test academics, California tests all kids regardless of language and proficiency in English,” says Marc Coleman, one of the attorneys representing Coachella and the other plaintiffs. “The only provision they make is that they won’t count scores for the first year.”
California’s accountability system, enacted in 1999, uses an Academic Performance Index to measure growth. Unlike the Adequate Yearly Progress provision in NCLB, which requires all students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014, the API rewards progress and improvement.
Bob Barnes, an administrator in the academic accountability unit of the California Department of Education, says NCLB requires all subgroups of students to meet the same standards. “The API is designed to get students off the bottom level and up the ladder. The AYP doesn’t do that. We’re much more caring here in California.”
Coleman concedes that API is a better form of measuring student progress. The sticking point is that a district’s API score is used in calculating whether it meets NCLB’s Adequate Yearly Progress requirements. Because ELL students are forced to take the tests in English after only one year, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit believe the test unfairly prevents them from meeting AYP.
Coachella’s statistics seem to bear this out. Slightly more than half of the district’s ELL students qualify for the NCLB exemption, and when their scores on the state test are excluded for three years, Coachella’s performance closely trails and in some cases exceeds the state average.
“When we look at this we’ve done a good job of teaching our kids English,” says Superintendent Foch “Tut” Pensis. “For us to be labeled as educational failures is absolutely wrong.”
Finding qualified teachers
Besides sharing a name, the only thing the school district and the valley have in common is the city of Indio. In this crossroads town, which is where the district’s boundaries begin and then extend eastward, one can see the area’s past and future in a series of murals clustered along Indio Boulevard. The Cabazon Indians, who still reside in nearby reservations, dominate the side of a building along Indio Blvd., while migrant farmworkers look suspended in time on the side of a department store around the corner.
Despite heavy gang presence, neither picture has been defaced or vandalized. “That shows you the level of respect people have,” says Chauncey Veatch, a Coachella Valley educator who was named 2002 National Teacher of the Year.
Veatch, who continues to work in the area as a teacher on assignment for the Riverside County Office of Education, illustrates both the impact a teacher has on the success of ELL students and the difficulty districts with large ELL populations have in finding qualified instructors. He has taken many of his students under his wing and shown them how they can succeed despite the odds.
“I have the opportunity to find these gifts in the kids and I build on these gifts,” Veatch says. “It doesn’t always happen at the same pace.”
Veatch, a retired U.S. Army colonel, was encouraged to try education by his siblings, both of whom are teachers. Without certification or background, he went to Coachella’s administrative building to apply for a substitute teacher’s position. He left the office with a full-time teaching position on an emergency credential basis.
Most of California’s ELL students are taught by teachers without the required certifications, the result of a national shortage of instructors in specialized fields like English as a Second Language. In fact, the latest U.S. Department of Education Schools and Staffing Survey discovered that only one-third of the ESL teachers received special training in their field.
Emergency credentials allow teachers to step into a classroom with only the promise of obtaining the required training within two to three years, a dangerous practice to employ in one of the most challenging areas of instruction, says Carla Meskill, an associate professor of educational theory and practice at the State University of New York in Albany.
“Imagine yourself as a 10-year-old kid and you are put in a French-speaking country without any French and some person tries to come off the street and teach you French,” says Meskill, who specializes in language and technology, particularly within ELL populations. “How effective do you think that’s going to be?”
Veatch has managed to be very effective, with a combination of unflagging energy, humility, and a love for what he calls “my kids.” In three years, he earned his certification and quickly garnered the respect of his peers, his students, and the community. Seven years after he started his second career, he earned the respect of the entire profession when he was honored as the nation’s top teacher.
“I don’t know why I was picked,” Veatch says, noting that his teaching style came from a combination of immersion in the culture and his fellow staff members showing him the ropes. “They made me the teacher that I am. I really feel like I was trained by the best.”
Indeed, it would be negligent to call Veatch an anomaly in the 1,200 square-mile school district. Dedication is a prerequisite for teaching in a place that has so many challenges -- language issues, poverty, high dropout rates, and gangs.
“That’s why you have to love them,” Coachella Valley High School Principal Manuel Arredondo says of the students. “Because we go above and beyond.”
Serving English language learners
Going above and beyond is arguably the only way to reach the underprivileged. With economic security and stability often absent in the home, ELL students are among the neediest of any subgroup. Logic follows that they require the most help.
From medical and dental services, to parent education classes and homework clubs, the Coachella school district does all it can to improve the students’ chances -- in many instances even before they arrive.
Because so many students enter the system with a weak education base, the district operates the Latino Family Literacy program, a 10-month countdown for parents and students that leads up to the child’s first day of kindergarten.
Each month, pre-kindergarten children and their parents receive two new books. While the student reads the English version in class with the teacher, the parent is instructed to go over the Spanish version at home. A disposable camera is included to document the process, and the pictures form a nostalgic scrapbook while they promote learning.
The district also spends its fair share on traditional methods of school improvement, investing in academic coaches, tutoring programs, and other forms of professional development. Every Wednesday at Coachella Valley High School, classes end shortly after lunch so teachers can take in-service courses on how best to instruct their diverse student population.
“Our teachers have to work doubly hard,” Pensis says. “Not only do they have to teach English, but they have to teach content.”
But even when schools have the proper funds, trained staff, and effective materials, most state and government classifications of ELL students often make them appear substandard. Students who have attained English proficiency are moved out of the subgroup, only to be replaced by someone who doesn’t speak English. That is the situation Coachella finds itself in daily.
“They have a stacked deck, and they have no way of overcoming it,” says attorney Coleman, adding that the long-term consequences of being labeled underperforming are pretty severe. He then lists several: “White flight, bright flight, poor teacher morale, students being stigmatized. It’s a bad reputation to have and an inescapable one in California.”
In its 2004 report, California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office warned that inattention to this growing group could have serious ramifications for everyone.
“The success of ELL students is a critical issue for the state’s K-12 system and for the state’s economy,” the report said. “If our schools are not successful with this group, we will have failed not only the students, but also failed to adequately provide a trained workforce for the state’s economy.”
Assessing the situation
Just as any discussion about improving student learning has to include instruction, any discussion about teaching English to non-native speakers always goes back to which model to use.
English immersion. Dual language. Bilingual. Each camp has its own supporters and detractors, the debate spawning articles, studies, and research. It’s a Pandora’s Box that never will truly be closed.
Still, California voters slammed it shut in 1998 with the passage of Proposition 227, which banned school districts from using the bilingual education model. Proposition 227 had its roots in the state’s disastrous performance in the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress, where California ranked at the bottom among 37 participating states in reading. Both events had huge implications for the accountability system the state implemented in 1999.
“Kids are instructed in English, they are expected to master English, so they are tested in English,” explains Linda Lownes, a consultant with the education department’s Standards and Assessment Division, summing up the fairly straight and narrow path that California officials expect all students to tread.
NCLB leaves it up to the states to decide which language instruction program to use, mandating only that the selected model has proven research behind it. And some researchers, such as Jamal Abedi of the University of California in Los Angeles, say English immersion doesn’t work.
“It’s not effective,” he says, referring to findings from two major studies on immersion programs. “These are extreme measures that some policymakers make without paying attention to the outcome.”
Unless hard evidence and strong research drive policies, Abedi and others say, legislators can’t possibly expect to find sound and reliable results in classrooms. “Assessment is a consequence of instruction,” he says. “If instruction is not effective, you really cannot test [students].”
After studying the results of the state’s 2002 English-proficiency tests, California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office determined that the broad diversity within the ELL population makes it impossible to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to instruction.
And, on an anecdotal level, four seniors at Coachella Valley High School arrived at much the same conclusion.
As part of a History Channel-sponsored project, Alejandro Hernandez, Sergio Ceja, Jahaira Duarte, and Silvia Torres entered ELL classrooms and documented the different models of instruction used to teach English. After winning at the local and regional level, their film is currently in contention for a state award.
“It’s hard to say what is the most effective way,” Ceja says, “because kids learn differently.”
Plaintiffs in the Coachella case are quick to note that the case does not focus on instruction. It is not, as Coleman says, “an attempt to debate whether bilingual education is best or how to teach.”
“This case is just about leveling the playing field,” he says. “There’s an unfairness in the law, and it needs to be changed.”
Specifically, the lawsuit asks the state to develop primary language tests for students who have recently arrived or enrolled in bilingual classrooms. Currently, only 13 states provide translations of their standardized tests, with New York offering its tests in 52 languages. The suit also calls for a new standardized test that reduces unnecessary linguistic features that can cloud the true assessment of an ELL student’s knowledge base.
Abedi, who has studied whether accommodations can affect ELL students’ performance on standardized tests for more than a decade, says his research shows that modified exams are more reliable. In a few case studies, he says, simple changes -- such as using active voice instead of passive voice and eliminating idioms and unfamiliar words that aren’t related to content -- have dramatically improved ELL students’ scores.
California’s Department of Education plans to try out a new Spanish exam next spring that would supplement, not replace, the current standardized test. The test would be available for second-, third-, and fourth-graders by spring 2007. But Deborah Short, director of language education and academic development for the Washington, D.C.-based Applied Linguistics Center, says it is unrealistic to think that non-English speakers can master core subject areas in another language in the short time frame California now has.
“Standardized tests do have a place in ELL, if they are appropriate,” she says. “We need to learn what [students] know. But I don’t think it’s appropriate if they’ve only been here for one year.”
That’s what Coachella district officials think, too, which is why they agonized but ultimately decided to go to court. “If we want our kids to learn, we need to stand up to the state,” Pensis says.
You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the district who didn’t stand behind the decision, although there’s a feeling that it’s a shame the situation has come to this.
Just before class breaks and the hallways flood with students, Arredondo stands in relative silence near Coachella Valley High School’s entrance. The principal hesitates and then stands stiffly.
“We are not whiners. We don’t complain,” he declares. “We do our job and we keep on trucking. These kids will succeed. The problem is the language.”
Naomi Dillon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate editor of American School Board Journal.
Photo by Michele Sabatier
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