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Mount Vernon Schools Cope with SOL Scores

Temporary change in ESOL test makes AYP hard to meet.

Assessing the progress of level-one English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) students with the same reading comprehension test given to their native English-speaking peers, said Washington Mill Elementary School Principal Tish Howard, "is like testing paraplegics’ math by having them run the mile."

In the five years she has been principal at Washington Mill, this is the first year the school did not meet the Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) goals set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and Howard said she thought the results had more to do with the test itself than with her students’ performance. The results were released last Thursday, Aug. 21, and, like many other schools in the county, Washington Mill made AYP in the math category this year, but missed the English benchmark.

Assessments of yearly progress are based on the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) test, but, until last school year, Virginia used the Stanford English Language Proficiency (SELP) test to measure the progress of level-one and level-two ESOL students. The test was designed to assess students’ progress, not just their bottom-line performance. However, last year, the U.S. Department of Education informed the state that the SELP test could no longer be used.

"The alternative that we have now existed then," said Fairfax County spokesperson Paul Regnier, noting that the new test had not yet been fleshed out enough to be put into practice. Fairfax County and other jurisdictions lobbied for a year’s extension to work out the details of the new test, but the request was denied, and schools had to use the same English test for all students in the same grade level.

MOUNT VERNON-AREA SCHOOLS, which serve a large proportion of ESOL and low-income students, have in the past had more difficulty meeting AYP goals than the county as a whole, and the schools were hit hard by the change in testing: fully two-thirds of the schools in the Mount Vernon High School and West Potomac High School pyramids missed AYP this year. Twelve of the 18 schools in the pyramids missed the benchmark this year, up from seven last year, and West Potomac’s status is yet to be determined, which Regnier said meant it was "a close call."

However, Mount Vernon schools still did not take as sharp a fall in No Child Left Behind status as did the county as a whole, where the number of schools missing AYP more than doubled, from about 17 percent to about 36 percent. It was the first year that Fairfax County missed the AYP goals as a school system.

"A lot of what you see when you look at our test results is because of this," Regnier said of the change in testing for early ESOL students. He noted that those who had completed the ESOL program, and those in levels three and four, performed well on the test.

He also pointed to the No Child Left Behind Act as being flawed to begin with. "If a school doesn’t pass, people think, ‘There’s something wrong with this school,’" he said. "It’s not helpful to the schools to get branded this way."

In a press release, Fairfax County Superintendent Jack Dale said it was "common knowledge" that No Child Left Behind did not accurately measure a school’s performance. He noted that a school need miss only one benchmark in 29 categories to fail to make AYP.

However, failing to meet the standards for more two years in a row can have real consequences for schools that receive government funding through the Title 1 program, which offers additional resources for schools that serve a high percentage of students from low-income areas. Half of the schools in the Mount Vernon and West Potomac pyramids receive Title 1 funding, as opposed to about 18 percent of all schools county-wide.

Until this year, said Regnier, Title 1 schools that missed AYP for two years running had to offer the option for students to transfer to other schools. After missing AYP for three years, schools had to offer supplemental teaching services through outside vendors. This year, the sanctions have been reversed, so that supplemental teaching programs, which Regnier said are "much less disruptive" to a school, will be instituted after two years and a transfer option after three.

The only two schools in the county facing sanctions for the first time this year are Hybla Valley and Riverside elementary schools, both in the Mount Vernon area. Regnier said parents of the students in the categories that missed an AYP benchmark at those schools would be called to meet in the fall to help choose companies to provide additional services to their children.

ALTHOUGH WASHINGTON MILL receives Title 1 funding, Howard said she did not expect this year’s test results to have any long-term effect on the school, but she saw the change in testing as a slight against the school and its students. "My level-one and –two ESOL kids gave me the best they had," she said. "Every little person wants to give the absolute best they can. They want you to be proud of them." She said giving children a test they could not pass was "hurtful," and she added that one of her students who had to take a grade-level English test had arrived from El Salvador only two days before.

What was important, said Howard, was to measure students’ growth. She noted that the school had made something like a 15 percent improvement in math scores.

She had warned parents in the community in March that the change in ESOL testing was likely to prevent the school from meeting AYP goals this year, and she said she had not received any concerned phone calls from parents since the scores were released. However, Howard said she still did not appreciate Washington Mill being labeled a failing school. "I’m still struggling to accept what I’ve told everyone else to accept," she said.

Woodlawn Elementary Principal Stephanie Bisson said she thought the change in ESOL testing "definitely" caused her school to miss AYP for the first time this year. Again, the school only missed the English benchmark, and, she said, level-one and –two ESOL students in particular did not score as well as they had in the past. "We felt it was an unfair test and not a valid test for those children," she said. Woodlawn also receives Title 1 funding.

The school has an ESOL population of about 30 percent, and Bisson said the teachers have been training all summer to implement the new assessment for lower-level ESOL students, which will be based on portfolios of student work collected throughout the year.

Regnier said the new test — called the Virginia Grade Level Alternative — was piloted at six schools this year and has been approved by the U.S. Department of Education, "so we can use that next year. It’s this last spring that was the problem." He assured, "We’re not going to be in this situation again."