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A Mandate to Fail?

School Board is set to consider a resolution decrying feds but following their rules.

The Alexandria School Board is set to take up a resolution during its April 12 meeting that its supporters admit will set hundreds of students up for failure. But, they say, they are not willing to lose $3.1 million by telling the United States Department of Education that they will refuse to comply with new federal rules — as other jurisdictions such as Fairfax County have already done.

At issue are the testing requirements for students without English proficiency — especially those who have been in the country less than a year. A secondary issue is how students who have been in the country fewer than two years are tested.

Under new rules crafted by the United States Department of Education, the federal government now requires children who have been in the country less than a year to take a standardized test in English. Previously, these students were exempt from testing. Another change forces students who have been in the country less than two years to take a Standards of Learning test that requires grade-level essential reading skills with word analysis strategies, information resources and comprehension of printed materials. Previously, these students were allowed to take a test known as Stanford English Language Proficiency as a proxy for the grade level Standards of Learning reading tests in grades 3 through 8. Failure to comply will cost the division $3.1 million in federal largesse tied to No Child Left Behind.

"If you had been in China for a year and I gave you a test in Chinese, would you be able to pass?" asked School Board member Sheryl Gorsuch, one of the three board members who crafted the resolution. "It’s immoral to give children this test because it sets them up for failure."

THE NEW RULES went into effect this school year, and several School Board members say they are worried what will happen when the test scores come in. They say that the grades will crush the spirit of the children and lower the overall division’s performance, a concern that created the momentum behind the resolution. In Alexandria last year, the first-year exemption applied to 236 students in grades 3 to 8. This year, first year students must take the Standard of Learning reading assessment or the Virginia Grade Level Alternate.

"They basically don’t have a clue what’s on the test, especially the nuances like similes and metaphors," said Charles Wilson, who helped craft the resolution. "We’re setting them up for failure with this, but we really don’t have a choice."

The resolution was originally introduced at the board’s March 15 meeting by Eileen Rivera, who worked with Gorsuch and Wilson to craft its language. The resolution cites George Mason Professor Virginia Collier, whose research has documented that immigrants arriving in the United States at ages 8 to 12 with at least two years of schooling in their home country take five to seven years to reach the level of average performance by native speakers. Collier found that this is true for standardized tests in reading, social studies, and science when they are schooled exclusively in the second language after arrival in the host country.

The resolution states that the school division considers the new federal rules "unfair, unrealistic, unethical, inappropriate and unsupported by research in second language acquisition."

But nobody seems to be willing to turn down the federal money tied to the new rules.

"We can’t afford to put our money where our mouth is," said Wilson. "Some of the larger jurisdictions can afford to do that but we can’t afford to lose the $3.1 million."