As the only non-native English speaker on the School Board, Ilryong Moon (at large) said he failed miserably at his first English-language standardized test after arriving in America in 1975.
"I've done well and now I'm here," he said. "I consider myself to be successful. Did my teachers fail me? Was I a failure? There are thousands of [Limited English Proficiency] students … that just need a little more time to study your language," said Moon, a Harvard graduate.
Fairfax Schools will continue to give that extra time to its new English speakers, after a vote by the School Board to defy U.S. Department of Education guidelines.
Fairfax Schools were informed through the Virginia Department of Education that its method of testing students with the lowest levels of English proficiency did not meet standards set under the Federal No Child Left Behind law.
Federal officials decided that the test given to those students was not comparable to the test given to native English speakers.
Under the federal mandate, the schools would either have to develop a new test which is comparable, or to give all students the same test.
A new test will not be ready for this academic year.
School Board members say it is pointless to give immigrant students who are just beginning to learn English the same test since they will barely understand the words.
If the students take the same test, and fail at a high rate, it could cause a spike in schools deemed 'failing' under the federal law, just before Election Day.
If a school fails by the standards of the “no child” law for two years in a row, that school is required to allow parents the option of placing their child in a different school within the county, with transportation provided by Fairfax County school buses.
As a result, the School Board passed a resolution that rejects the federal mandate and continues to operate under the old paradigm for another year while a new test is developed.
The resolution, introduced by Phil Niedzielski-Eichner (Providence), retains the current policy of assessing students new to the country after one year, but does not require the students to take the same Standards of Learning tests as native-English speaking classmates until after they have achieved a degree of proficiency.
"There's an exemption for students in grades three through eight who have been in the country for less than a year," Niedzielski-Eichner said in introducing the resolution.
Students are still assessed twice a year in order to determine their ability to read and comprehend English, he said. Once they are proficient, they will take the standard exams with their classmates and will be held to the same standards as native-English speakers.
Niedzielski-Eichner said the school board is not lowering standards by providing more time before testing immigrant students who are not proficient in English.
Asking those children to take a test they are "pre-disposed to fail" is something he considered insulting to the students.
"This resolution reinforces that we are committed to being accountable with the Limited English Proficiency students, it adheres to our own high expectations," he said.
A similar resolution was passed by the School Board in Harrisonburg, said Board member Stuart Gibson (Hunter Mill).
"This is all about treating these children without losing the respect that we would expect our own children to be treated with," Gibson said.
Board member Steve Hunt (at large) did not agree with the resolution, saying the blame should be put on the Virginia Department of Education for not creating an acceptable test for students just learning English in the five years since the adoption of the federal No Child Left Behind law.
"The state knew what they had to accomplish. … We need to acknowledge that, they've put Fairfax County Public Schools in a difficult position," Hunt said.
By not providing an alternate test, Fairfax County schools are in danger of failing to make “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) by having enough immigrant students pass the required tests, Hunt said.
"If the state had provided us with an alternative test, we'd use it," Gibson said. "All we're doing is asking for another year to create that test."