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Miami-Dade schools bracing for new letter grades

Up until the last week of school, Ofelia Martinez drilled her students on spelling. Especially tricky were words like “knight” with letters hidden in plain sight.

“You’re going to have here some words that are spelled with ‘kn,’ but you don’t hear the ‘k,’ you just hear the n sound,” Martinez said.

Many of her students at Milam K-8 Center in Hialeah are from Cuba and are still learning English.

Yet nearly all of them were graded the same as native English speakers on the state’s standardized exams this year, and their scores will count toward the state-issued letter grades for schools, due out soon. Previously, students had two years of English instruction before their scores were counted. Now they only have one.

It is one of a slate of changes, including a tougher grading scale on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

Miami-Dade schools are bracing for the impact. The change is expected to drag down grades for schools like Milam, which currently has a B, but more than 90 percent of its students are still learning English.

Schools that get failing marks miss out on bonus money and can lose students to other campuses. Teachers can see the impact, too, since student scores will drive half of their evaluations this year — and eventually their pay.

“The research tells us that for a student to demonstrate mastery in other subjects like math or science, it takes three to five years of language instruction,” said Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. “Depriving students of that time and forcing them to take an exam that can count against them I think it is not logical but it is punitive to the child, to the school, to the teachers and to the district.”

Florida Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson proposed the rule as part of his effort to win Florida a waiver from No Child Left Behind. The federal law mandates students must meet benchmarks, or schools suffer consequences, like replacing teachers or restructuring academics. The Obama administration offered waivers for states to avoid the harshest consequences last year after federal lawmakers failed to rework the education law.

But when it comes to students learning English, experts and bilingual education advocates argue there are less punitive ways to hold schools accountable for their progress.

Roberto Martinez, vice chairman of the State Board of Education, has appealed to high-ranking administrators with the U.S. Department of Education to try to get the rule changed.

“I’m not satisfied that it cannot be changed. I’m not satisfied the federal government cannot be persuaded. So I’m not finished pursuing this issue,” Martinez said. The deadline for attaining a waiver is July 15.

Carvalho has said the district, with other groups, might explore legal options because a group of students could be “disproportionately impacted.”

Nearly 19 percent, or 68,000 students, in Miami-Dade are considered “English-language learners.” That is more than other large districts, such as Broward with 25,000 such students, or about 10 percent.

“It’s not fair to say a student has learned math or hasn’t learned math ... on the basis of results of a test that’s written in a language that they can’t understand. That would be like asking me to take a test in Urdu,” said Rosa Castro-Feinberg, a member of the League of United Latin American Citizens’ state education commission, which has asked Gov. Rick Scott to change the new rule. “It would not reflect my knowledge of anything other than my lack of knowledge of Urdu.”

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.