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Districts Sue the State Over Testing

Coachella Valley and nine other school systems object to limited-English students having to take annual exams in that language.

June 02, 2005|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

Ten California school districts sued the state Wednesday, accusing top officials of violating the federal No Child Left Behind education law by requiring students with limited English skills to take annual standardized tests in English rather than in their primary languages.

The lawsuit, filed in San Francisco Superior Court, alleges that such English-language tests produce invalid and unreliable test scores for California's 1.6-million students who are still learning the language.

The test results for math, English and other subjects are used to evaluate schools and districts under No Child Left Behind. Campuses can face sanctions, including the removal of staff, if they fail to adequately raise scores.

District superintendents and bilingual advocates say the state's testing system unfairly penalizes school systems that serve large numbers of immigrant and migrant students with a limited command of English.

The school officials want the state to comply with No Child Left Behind's guidelines that allow schools to wait up to five years before giving English-language tests to students who are not proficient in the language.

"California's testing of English learners is neither valid nor reliable. This has been disastrous and very painful for our community," Supt. Ruben H. Pulido of the Alisal Union Elementary School District in Salinas told a news conference in Los Angeles on Wednesday. "We are not educational failures."

In addition to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the suit names Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, members of the state Board of Education and the state Department of Education.

A Schwarzenegger spokeswoman said the administration would not comment because it had not yet seen the lawsuit.

But O'Connell's spokesman defended the state's method of testing all students in English annually, saying the approach had won the blessing of the U.S. Department of Education.

The spokesman, Rick Miller, also said the state did not have a reliable alternative test in Spanish, or any other foreign language, that was acceptable to the federal government.

"We have more than 100 languages spoken in our schools," Miller said. "It's not practical to produce a test in every language. What they want is not possible."

Most California public school students are now taught in English, the result of a 1998 voterapproved initiative that sharply limited bilingual education. Still, it often takes students several years to become proficient in English, a factor that affects test results.

No Child Left Behind does not require states to measure academic proficiency in English until such students have been enrolled in a school in this country for three or more years. Districts can exempt students for an additional two years if they still are not proficient in English.

By contrast, all California students are tested annually in English on exams tied to the state's academic standards; the scores of first-time test takers with limited English skills are not counted against schools. In addition to conforming to the federal law, the districts want the state to modify the English tests to make them more comprehensible to students. Doing so, they said, would be fair to English learners as well as the schools and districts they attend.

"Our students are doing quite well, as long as they are given the opportunity to learn English," said Supt. Foch Pensis of the Coachella Valley Unified School District in Riverside and Imperial counties, which has been identified under No Child Left Behind as needing improvement based partly on the test scores of its English learners.

The Coachella Valley and Alisal school districts were joined in the lawsuit by school systems in Hawthorne, Oxnard and other urban and rural areas. Students, parents and advocacy organizations, including the California Assn. for Bilingual Education, also were part of the suit.

"We are defeating the purpose of No Child Left Behind when we don't test kids validly," said Mary Hernandez, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit. "Our accountability system is built upon a house of data. When the data is invalid, the whole house falls."

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