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Virginia Districts Ask for Legislative Break on Testing ELLs

It may turn out to be merely a symbolic move, but on behalf of several Virginia school districts resisting a federal mandate to change how they test English-language learners, the Virginia School Boards Association has asked Virginia's senators to introduce legislation in the U.S. Congress that would ensure they would not have to carry out the mandate this school year.

Frank E. Barham, the executive director of the Virginia School Boards Association said in a phone interview that earlier this month, his organization sent a letter asking Sen. John Warner, a Republican, and Sen. Jim Webb, a Democrat, to introduce legislation that would apply to all U.S. school districts with the following language:

"[English-language learners] will be tested under current Title III provisions to determine level of English proficiency. Only when students are deemed sufficiently proficient in English will states be required to adhere to the Title I provisions and administer the federally approved grade level reading test. This emergency revision of the current ESEA (also known as NCLB) is effective only until full re-authorization of ESEA is completed."

It doesn't seem that the two Virginia senators have spent much time considering the request for them to introduce this legislation. The press secretary from Sen. Warner's office didn't return my calls seeking comment on the issue, and Jessica Smith, the communications director for Sen. Webb, said she didn't think he'd received the letter from the Virginia School Boards Association.

The Virginia School Boards Association also sent a letter to its counterparts in other states, asking those associations to join a coalition seeking congressional relief from the mandate concerning English-language learners and testing.

The school board of Manassas City, which had resisted the mandate, changed its position after the U.S. Department of Education made it clear it would enforce the requirement by withholding federal funds. The Manassas board agreed to comply this school year, according to a March 1 article in the Washington Post. But other school boards that initially passed resolutions indicating that they would resist the mandate haven't yet followed suit.

In an earlier post, I mentioned that officials of the Virginia Department of Education have backed down from defending the resisting school districts and agreed to help carry out the federal mandate.

Tom Mendez, a member of the Harrisonburg City school board, told me in an e-mail message that his school board plans to meet with Virginia's senators and representatives in Washington at the end of the month to continue to try to make the board's case in opposing a change in testing this school year. "We're far from giving up the fight for our kids," he said.

When I checked by telephone this week with Paul Regnier, a spokesman for Fairfax County schools, he said the Fairfax County school board hasn't yet made a determination of how it will carry out testing for English-language learners this spring, given recent developments.The resolution passed by Fairfax County schools doesn't explicitly say that the district will resist the federal government's mandate, he noted, but rather that "we will continue to test our LEP kids with the appropriate testing."

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