A Tough Test for Second Language Students

ESL students have a hard time with standardized tests, and that hurts their schools' overall scores

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At Bailey's Elementary School in Virginia, students play dramatic games to learn English.

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The fifth graders are learning division in small groups in the Fairfax County, Va., classroom, but Carolina, a girl from El Salvador who speaks broken English, is having a bit of a hard time. She has figured out that 162 divided by 12 equals 13 with a remainder of 6, but she can't come up with a story to write that shows she understands the problem. "No entiendo," she whispers to her friends. I don't understand.

Like hundreds of schools across the country, Bailey's Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences is struggling to reach the federal requirements for reading and math proficiency among students who are learning English as a second language. Last year, not enough of these students passed the state's standardized tests, and as a result, the school overall was deemed in need of improvement. Teachers and district administrators say that "one size fits all" tests are unfair to students who can barely speak English or who have serious learning disabilities. They say schools should have the flexibility to decide which tools better measure how much these students are learning. And, if the NCLB law is changed, revising the requirements for these students—substituting learning portfolios for test scores, for example—could benefit the overall student body.

The 5 million ESL students make up about 10 percent of all students in the nation. Most of them are in border states in the Southwest, but the fastest growth recently has been in the Carolinas, Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee. In Fairfax County, Va., the schools serve 21,000 students who speak more than 140 languages. For years, these students were able to take a different reading test from native speakers. Then last year, Virginia schools agreed to give all students the same test after federal auditors threatened to withhold millions of dollars.

Despite last year's disappointing scores, Bailey's teachers are optimistic. Beginning this year, Virginia schools can use work portfolios, instead of a reading test, to determine if struggling English learners are meeting federal academic goals. District officials launched the program with 169 students last year, and 97 percent passed. Teachers say work portfolios account for students' mastery of the same standards in more creative ways. "It shows the whole child," says Betsy Walter, a fifth-grade teacher.

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