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Federal Officials Grant Florida Waiver on English-Learner Testing

The U.S. Department of Education has decided to give Florida flexibility in how it assesses English-language learners, bringing an end to a months-long dispute between the federal agency and state officials.

On Monday, federal officials granted the state's request to give its ELL students two years in a U.S. school before counting their test scores in school grades. Deborah Delisle, assistant secretary for the office of elementary and secondary education, confirmed the shift in a letter sent Monday to Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart.

The change contradicts federal rules that demand all children be counted equally in accountability measures. This also marks the first time that the Education Department is relenting on the federal requirement that English-learners'performance on state content tests be part of school accountability after such students have been enrolled in U.S. schools for one year.

In the letter, Ms. Delisle wrote that the department had reconsidered Florida's request and agreed to approve the testing flexibility because the state will still publicly report on performance of recently-arrived English-learners and include their scores in the growth component of the school-grading system.

With the move, federal officials are following the lead of state legislators in Florida, who changed the law this year to reflect that students still learning English should not be expected to immediately excel on the state's annual tests. They gave the students two years in a U.S. school before counting their test scores in school grades.

Earlier this year, the Education Department scolded Florida as it renewed the state's waiver from federal No Child Left Behind requirements, warning education leaders that they risked having the waiver revoked if the state did not comply with federal law on using ELL test scores.

About one in 10 Florida students, roughly 250,000, were English-language learners in the 2013-14 academic year. But not all those students would be affected by the testing requirement.

"I never got a sense of how many kids were going to affected or the level of proficiency of these students," said Robert Linquanti, the project director for English-learner evaluation and accountability support at WestEd, a San Francisco-based research group. "I get the feeling that this was a debate on principle. What we had here was a debate about fairness."

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