Plan targets kids with weak English; Schools face action if tests show they lag behind fluent classmates

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 19A

It can be easy for children who can’t speak English to get pushed to a school’s margins. Texas’ new federal accountability system will make that a lot more difficult.

The new system, partially unveiled last week, puts unprecedented pressure on schools to look after students whose command of English is weak. A school – or even an entire district – could for the first time face serious sanctions if those students don’t perform well on tests, even if the rest of the school’s students are strong.

“Those children haven’t been the focus of the Texas system up to this point,” said Ross Weiner, policy director of the Washington-based Education Trust. “It’s really a wake-up call on how much work there is to be done with children who don’t know English.”

The reason for the attention is “adequate yearly progress,” the catchphrase introduced by the No Child Left Behind Act, last year’s federal education bill. For a school or a school district, making AYP is similar to earning the “acceptable” rating in the state’s accountability system.

For a school to make AYP, it has to hit the state’s passing rate goal on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. Last week, state officials announced their proposal for this year’s goals: 46.8 percent passing in reading and 33.4 percent passing in math.

But a school also has to hit those goals in each of six student subgroups: blacks, Hispanics, whites, poor students, special education students, and students who have trouble with English.

State officials estimate that the last group – “limited English proficient,” or LEP in education-speak – will pose the most problems.

Using last year’s scores on the TAAS reading test, state officials predict a statewide passing rate among the limited English proficient of 28.8 percent – almost 20 points below where it will need to be. That suggests that any school with an average set of non-English speakers would probably not make AYP.

The requirements will be particularly difficult for Dallas schools, where 33 percent of students are limited English proficient. That’s the highest percentage of any district in the state.

Possible sanctions

Schools missing AYP for multiple years face a variety of sanctions, including giving students the ability to transfer to other schools, having to pay for after-school private tutoring, and in some cases, closing the school.

“I think a lot of schools are going to be fine,” said Mike Strozeski, a Richardson schools official who worked on the state’s AYP definition this month. “But if you have a high population of limited English proficient kids, you’ll struggle to make AYP.”

Many non-English speakers have been tested in the Texas assessment system for years. Only about one in 10 limited English proficient students did not take the TAAS test last year, according to state data.

Welcome attention

The educators who deal with these children say they welcome the extra attention.

“We’re going to hope and pray those predictions are wrong,” said Connie Guerra, president of the Texas Association of Bilingual Educators. “But it’s like anything else: when you give a group more attention and bring them to the surface, people look at their programs and try to improve them.”

In one key respect, limited English proficient students are different from the other subgroups the accountability system looks at: They’re highly fluid.

For example, if a student enrolls in a Texas kindergarten, his race isn’t going to change over the next 12 years. If he’s white, black or Hispanic at age 5, he’ll still be white, black or Hispanic at age 18.

Students who don’t know English, however, eventually learn English. As soon as teachers do their job and move them into a standard English-language class, the students are no longer in the LEP subgroup – and schools no longer get the “credit” for their improved test scores.

Meanwhile, there’s always an influx of immigrant students, often unprepared for American education, ready to bring scores down.

“We’ve tried to address the needs of those youngsters,” said Catherine Clark, associate executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards. “But maybe we haven’t done enough. It’s going to take all kinds of additional effort to bring everybody up to the same level.”

Wait-and-see approach

Officials point out that TEA’s predictions are just predictions, based on how students did on last year’s Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, the state test that is being retired. The first students won’t take a real TAKS test until this month.

But the predicted gap between English speakers and non-English speakers fits with past results. Last year, on the 10th-grade TAAS, 88 percent of students who knew English passed all three sections of the test. Only 39 percent of students who didn’t know English well did.

AYP is, in some ways, a test run for the new Texas state accountability system, which will be designed over the coming year. While few things about the plan are definite, state officials say the limited English proficient students are likely to be counted as a separate subgroup there, too.

“There will certainly be a significant push for schools to increase those passing rates right away,” said Criss Cloudt, the state’s associate commissioner for accountability reporting and research.