For South Florida, the issue touches close to home. Ofelia Martinez, the teacher at Milam K-8 Center, learned English from Sesame Street and in school. Her parents, who brought her from Cuba at age 2, spoke Spanish at home. By third grade, she graduated to mainstream classes.
“I know how it feels when you’re that age and you’re frustrated,” she said. “Sometimes they get frustrated, and they break down and cry, and that breaks my heart because I know they really want to know it but they just can’t grasp it.”
Martinez uses visual aids, lots of hand gestures, and a few phrases in Spanish to reach her newly arrived students.
At Milam, only 4 percent of English-language learners in their first and second years passed the FCAT reading exam, and 17 percent passed the math exam last year, according to an analysis by Miami-Dade administrators. In comparison, 70 percent of other students at the same school passed the reading, and 60 percent passed the math test.
Roberto Martinez, the vice chairman of the State Board of Education, said he pulled out his old report cards that his mother saved from their native Cuba. He looked at his first U.S. report cards: second and third grades at St. Joseph’s on Miami Beach.
“And sure enough, I didn’t do that well. And then it was in year three, I transferred to another Catholic school, St. Rose, that my grades shot up,” he said.
A panel of experts reviewed Florida’s application for a waiver. In a December report, they noted that many English learners were excluded from Florida’s A-F grading system for schools. The panel’s suggestion: Judge their performance on language-proficiency tests.
A special taskforce tapped by Robinson to review how to include English-learners supported that recommendation. The taskforce also proposed linking students’ FCAT scores to their English proficiency. Robinson rejected both ideas.
Castro-Feinberg said those moves would reward schools for teaching English and reduce the pain of including non-native speakers in school grades. She feels the new practice could lead to more dropouts and failing schools.
Statewide, 50 percent of English-language students in grades 3-10 failed the FCAT reading with the lowest score, 1, out of 5 this year. Overall, 17 percent of Florida students scored a 1. But in math, the gap was closer.
In Miami-Dade, English-language learners performed better in math than in reading.
In 2011, in reading, 63 percent of native speakers passed the exam, versus 28 percent of students with more than two years of English. On the math exam, 69 percent of non-English language students passed, compared to 46 percent of students who’ve studied English for more than two years.
“That is clear evidence we should not be penalizing these students. They will master the language in time,” Carvalho said.