Editorials

More time to learn English

At last. Some sanity has made its way into the frenzied world of high-stakes testing. It wasn’t easy to get to this point and, incredibly, it wasn’t assured, though anyone who has studied a foreign language for a trip abroad would understand.

The U.S. Department of Education — DOE — reversed its unhelpful policy that required the test scores of students studying English for just one year to be factored into each school’s accountability scores.

Given the English language’s notorious “bough/through/cough” conundrums, it should be a given that most students who speak a foreign language are going to have a tough time learning to read and write English fluently in a year — especially if the new language is not reinforced at home. Some students need several years to pick up a language. In addition, South Florida school districts have taken on thousands of the unaccompanied children from Central America who flooded across the Mexican border during the past year. Many of them, to teachers’ dismay, are not even literate in their native tongue. The hurdle they face is obvious, though, not insurmountable. But the task takes time, which the DOE finally granted.

The decision is a huge win not just for South Florida students who are English-language Learners — ELLs — but also for their classmates, their teachers and their schools. In Miami-Dade County, there are 77,000 in the public-school district.

And it’s a well-earned victory for Miami-Dade schools chief Alberto Carvalho, who has been pushing the feds to modify its testing requirement for at least two years. His persistence paid off.

His voice was given a boost in Washington, D.C., as Gov. Rick Scott and state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart added theirs.

The state leaders’ concern is good to hear, and perhaps it will lead them to take a closer look at injecting some stability into the system of testing and scoring. During the past decade, anxious students, and school districts, have been dragged from pillar to post by state lawmakers and education leaders, as standards that must be achieved have been raised year after year, and scores on older tests have been unfairly compared to those on revised and harder exams. And now, the state’s version of Common Core still has question marks attached.

Mr. Carvalho told the Editorial Board that the White House and DOE Secretary Arne Duncan called Monday to tell him the heartening news: “Of all the victories we’ve had in the district, this is the most significant,” he said. “To have such policy change when there is such gridlock in Washington is amazing. This is a significant about-face from the government.”

There is so much riding on schools’ test scores that it was foolish for DOE to undercut them with such a damaging policy. Students are under tremendous pressure to do well on accountability tests. Imagine the pressure if English is not a new student’s first language. A school’s score can mean the difference between receiving more funding or being shut down. Teachers’ evaluations, too, are tied to the scores.

Mr. Carvalho said that school district stats show that the percentage of English-language learners who perform at grade level increases by 28 points in the second year of instruction.

The extra year that ELLs have been granted gives students, teachers and schools a fairer shake. Education is not just a numbers game. The DOE should have recognized it sooner.

  Comments