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Justice Department Investigates Arizona For Faulty Testing Of English Learners

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Justice Department Investigates Arizona For Faulty Testing Of English Learners

Justice Department Investigates Arizona For Faulty Testing Of English Learners

Heather Wilson’s students at Alhambra High School are from Thailand, Somalia, Bhutan, Iraq, Nepal, Nicaragua, and Mexico. They grew up in war-torn countries or in refugee camps or with moms who moved so much, they never were able to attend school in the same place for more than four months at a time and now live with distant aunts after their mothers were, again, deported.

Many of them cannot read or write in their native language and arrive at school often without any context for the vocabulary they are now required to know, Wilson says. She goes on: “This is the first time they’ve ever been on a bus, this is the first time they’ve ever had a faucet where the water comes out, the first time they’ve used a fork and a knife. How can you even remember [a word] if you’ve never used it in context, if you have no practice with it? You can’t.”

But the students must. To this end, Wilson bombards them with clip art that she’s collected of apples and books, fans and fish, calling out to them “F-A-N, fan! F-A-N, fan!” as the screen flashes between images that her students have likely never seen before. Wilson concedes that while she’s not a supporter of the current English language program in Arizona (“It’s terrible,” she said, noting that her students have little access to core classes that provide them with a chance to graduate on time, native-English speakers, or any vocational electives), she knows her students need more language help than they would typically get in a mainstream class.

As it happens, in the last few years, English language students have moved from their four-hour English immersion class into these mainstream classes at a surprisingly speedy pace. The way they do this involves passing a proficiency test called the AZELLA.

The AZELLA is new, first introduced in 2006. Since then, Karen Grimwood who works at nearby Carl Hayden High School, has noticed a marked change in the group of students learning English that she works with: “It’s getting smaller and smaller, frankly. A few years ago, we had over 600 ESL students in our school and this year we’re down to about 130.”

Interestingly, English class sizes shrunk at her high school even while the number of students there whose first language is not English stayed the same. In fact, the number of students in special English language classes has shrunk all across the state -- from more than 150,000 students in 2005 to about 116,000 in 2010. To Andy Lefevre, at Arizona’s Department of Education, this means that their English immersion methods are working.

“What we’ve seen,” he says, “is that putting those students in those four hour classes has made a dramatic improvement in the number of students who are able to mainstream back into class over the last couple of years as compared to previous years.”

Last year, the state was able to re-classify nearly 30% of their English language students as proficient, moving these students into mainstream classes. This is one of their highest rates in years.

But lawyer Tim Hogan says this reclassification rate is this high mainly because the testing system pushes the kids out of English classes too quickly. (One other reason, Hogan notes, is that the state’s Home Language Survey which helps schools identify students might need language support services was shortened from three questions to one, which he says limited the pool of English-language-learners from the outset.) “In some aspects, they’ve made the AZELLA test easier,” Hogan says, “so that the kids get out more quickly, and therefore the state is off the hook in paying for them.”

In Arizona, it costs about $385 more per year to educate an English Language Learner than it does a regular student. So there’s a huge incentive to get them out of English classes and into the mainstream. Like Tim Hogan, Karen Grimwood says the AZELLA is much easier than the test they used to use.

“We analyzed the reading on the AZELLA, and it will exit them when they can read at a fourth grade level,” she says. “They can be in tenth grade, and they take the AZELLA and if they can read at a fourth grade level, it says Ok! You’re done. Out you go!”

A recent study of out UCLA’s Civil Rights Project found a similar trend -- that AZELLA test questions have gotten easier since the test was first introduced four years ago. It also notes that the test is structured in a way to allow for a passing grade even if a student cannot read or write English, if say, that student can speak English very well and that students who were not passing the test in the upper grades were still being moved into mainstream classes.

“If you’re an English-language-learner, the law places an obligation on you to provide language support for that student,” Hogan explains. “And so if a student is prematurely exited from language support and is out there in the school without any language support and therefore their ability to access the curriculum is impaired, that’s a violation of the law.”

The U.S. Department of Justice seems to agree. Last August, they sent a letter to Arizona’s Department of Education to inform them that they were no longer permitted to use the AZELLA as the sole measure in determining where a student should be placed. It noted that, “the AZELLA fails to identify all ELL [English Language Learner] students, prematurely exits ELL students, and is not a valid measure of English language proficiency and readiness to exit the ELL program.”

Six months later, school district officials in Phoenix report that they have received no mandate to incorporate other measures of students’ language skills into their decision into whether they can continue to receive language support services. (The Department of Justice stipulated that teacher and parent recommendations also be taken into account, as well as grades.) The local officials say the AZELLA is still the only measure of proficiency, and thus placement, for students learning English. Neither the Department of Justice or the Arizona Department of Education were willing to comment on the issue, saying, “The case is still open.”

Devin Browne was a reporter for KZJZ's Fronteras Desk.