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Testing Showdown

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I'm curious to see what the next move will be in the chess game between Virginia education officials and U.S. Department of Education officials regarding how to include beginning English-language learners in large-scale testing under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The No. 2 official in the U.S. Department of Education, Deputy Secretary of Education Raymond J. Simon, has told Virginia officials to enforce testing requirements for such students OR ELSE. Mr. Simon said in a Jan. 31 letter to Virginia’s superintendent of public instructionRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader, Billy K. Cannaday Jr., that he was “greatly distressed to hear that some of Virginia’s districts voted on resolutions that may cause them to be out of compliance with certain assessment requirements” of the NCLB law.

School boards in Fairfax County, Prince William County, and Harrisonburg, Va., have passed resolutions saying they will not give some beginning English-learners the state’s regular reading test, as federal officials require. See the Feb. 6 Washington Post article on how the issue is playing out. You can also read my Jan. 31 article about why school officials in Harrisonburg took a stand on the issue.

One thing that stuck with me was that Donald Ford, the superintendent of Harrisonburg City schools, liked the idea that Harrisonburg school board members were going on the record criticizing federal demands on how to test beginning English-learners in time for discussions in the U.S. Congress about reauthorization of NCLB. This sweater-vest and plaid-shirt kind of guy has already been to Washington twice to express his views on the subject and seems very capable of holding his own.

Virginia education officials seem to be doing what they can to back the school districts. Charles B. Pyle, the director of communications for the Virginia Department of Education, told me in an interview for Education Week that there's no need for Virginia officials to take any action right now because no school districts are disobeying the law. How can they be, he said, when standardized testing doesn't happen until spring?

Lots more people are going to jump into this debate over the effect of the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act on English-learners. Jack Jennings, the president and CEO of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, just invited nearly 30 organizations to a symposium on the subject to be held March 20. He told me in a telephone conversation last week that Diane August, a researcher who specializes in studying English-language learners, and Stanley Rabinowitz, a program director for WestEd, have agreed to write background papers for the one-day meeting.

The purpose, says Mr. Jennings, is to have organizations share their proposals for how to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act's requirements for English-language learners. He says that congressional staff are telling him they're hearing about the problems with the law concerning such students but not solutions.

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We will see much more protest on the testing issues for English learners. Virginia is just a start. Current NCLB requirements for these students are bizzare, since -- by definition -- English learners are not proficient in English, and, while they are ELs, will not score at the proficient or advanced levels in English language arts. They are being tested with instruments that are neither valid nor reliable for them, and they, their schools and communities are being labeled failures based on these results. How absurd!

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