Education

Florida wins more time to teach English language learners

Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, calls the federal decision to grant English language learners an extra year to hone skills for standardized tests a “huge, huge policy win.” He is pictured at an event earlier this year.
Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, calls the federal decision to grant English language learners an extra year to hone skills for standardized tests a “huge, huge policy win.” He is pictured at an event earlier this year. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The U.S. Department of Education on Monday backed down from a policy that put schools and teachers — particularly in South Florida — on the hook for the test scores of students who are in their first year of learning English.

The victory may seem small: English language learners (ELLs for short) will now have two years instead of one before their test scores count in accountability measures. But in a district that educates 77,000 English language learners, Miami-Dade County schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho declared himself “freaking excited.”

“We have more ELL students in Miami-Dade than the vast majority of the districts have in total population,” Carvalho said. “To expect them to perform as quickly or as efficiently, within the same time line of native born students, probably is not reasonable.”

The decision is especially timely. An influx of unaccompanied immigrant children came to South Florida from Central America over the year. More than 2,000 children have been placed with families in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

The test scores of these students are used in high-stakes decisions. They are factored into school letter grades, which can earn a school extra cash or force it to shut its doors. Teacher evaluations — which can be used to fire teachers or give them a raise — also count on them.

“The extra year is a huge deal,” said Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie. “You can just imagine if anyone here were to go to another country and, in just one year, we were expected to adjust to the new country ... and be expected to perform at the same level. We’re putting a group of kids at a severe disadvantage if we do that, and it’s just not fair.”

Carvalho has said Miami-Dade’s figures show that the percentage of English-language learners who perform at-grade level increases by 28 points in the second year of instruction.

With the feds agreeing to relax the standard, Florida gets to stick to its way of measuring the progress of English language learners. Students will still be tested, but only their learning gains — not proficiency on a test — will be factored into accountability measures.

The feds originally denied a request from Florida earlier this year for more leeway on testing. In August, Carvalho joined Gov. Rick Scott and Florida education Commissioner Pam Stewart in demanding more time to work with English learners.

Miami-Dade educators welcomed the decision but said more change is needed to fairly assess the progress of English-language learners. For example, students will still be required to pass certain tests to graduate high school.

“I don’t think it will really make a difference for the student,” said Yvette Pino, a guidance counselor at Hialeah Gardens High School. “We have cases where kids, they get so discouraged, they want to drop out.”

She added: “It’s very frustrating. They’ve finished all their credits. They want to go to college and they can’t because they can’t pass their reading test.”

Dannielle Boyer teaches bilingual social studies classes at North Miami Senior High. All of her students are learning the language — and some are illiterate in their native language, too.

She pointed to studies that show students need several years to pick up a new language.

“We do a lot of work. We deal with grammar. We deal with spelling,’’ Boyer said. “We teach them everything they can imagine. And the fact of the matter is they're not going to pick that up in a year or two.”

Still, teachers will be evaluated based on their students’ scores after two years.

“It does make me nervous,” said Annette Quintero, a social studies teacher at North Miami Senior High.

Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.

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