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Arlington Fights The Feds

Arlington Public Schools tries to defy federal mandates on English testing but its options are running out.

Taking on an entity as massive as the United States Federal Government is never easy. But that’s exactly what several public school divisions in Virginia are attempting to do.

The U.S. Department of Education and Virginia schools are involved in a standoff over the testing of Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students, immigrants who have little if any command of the English language.

The standoff began in 2006 when federal education officials rejected a test used by many Virginia schools to assess reading levels of LEP students.

The officials said that the Stanford English Language Proficiency (SELP) test violated the No Child Left Behind Act because it did not test students at grade level. They demanded that Virginia begin giving LEP students the Standards of Learning (SOL) reading test, their standard English assessment test.

The conflict heated up when, in late January, the Fairfax County School Board refused to follow the federal order to discontinue the use of the SELP test. They said that it would be unfair to give more than 30,000 LEP students a test that they could not reasonably be expected to pass. Several other Virginia jurisdictions, including Arlington, quickly followed suit.

"The resolution that we passed [stated] that we test students but we’re going to test them appropriately," Libby Garvey, the Arlington County School Board Chair, said. Arlington Superintendent of Schools Robert Smith agreed, saying "We want to avoid giving kids a test they can’t read."

"Imagine yourself going to Mongolia," Garvey said. "You’ve been there for a year and [then] you have to take an 8th grade test in Mongolian. It’s absolutely ridiculous."

PROPONENTS OF THE FEDERAL PLAN say that giving the SOL reading test to LEP students is not unfair because certain accommodations could be made for them. An Arlington Public Schools spokesman said that LEP students would be given an untimed test and would be provided with a bilingual dictionary.

Smith, however, does not think that these accommodations will be of any benefit to LEP students. "If you’re testing reading and English," he said, "[Suggesting the use of a dictionary] is a laughable example."

Garvey is concerned that giving students that are incapable of reading English the SOL reading test would be a traumatic experience. "If [the teacher] suddenly give[s] you something that you can't possibly do," she said, "It can be a very distressing experience. It’s just wrong and it’s harmful to kids."

She is also incensed about the federal demands. "The federal government is telling us to do something improper," Garvey said. "It would be committing educational malpractice."

However, Garvey may not have any choice in the matter anymore.

The Virginia Department of Education agrees with the local school divisions that the SELP test should not be discontinued. But it appears to be acquiescing in the face of federal threats to withhold funds.

Deputy Secretary of Education Raymond Simon recently sent a letter to his Virginia counterpart outlining the "potential financial consequences" if the school divisions continue to use the SELP test. He then attached a chart listing exactly how many federal dollars each school district in the commonwealth would stand to lose.

The Department of Education would rescind $2.5 million out of the $410 million Arlington Public Schools spends on Education. Fairfax County Public Schools, one of the largest school divisions in the country, would lose $17.5 million out of its $2.2 billion budget. "The Virginia Department of Education sympathizes with school divisions," said Julie Grimes, spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Education. "But we continue to tell them that we are following the law and we hope that they will follow the law as well."

Ultimately, the federal government wields a very large stick over local school divisions. The case may be that Virginia schools simply cannot afford to defy a federal mandate, regardless of how much they oppose it. But that certainly doesn’t mean they can’t try.