State education officials agreed Friday to change how they determine if students really know English to ensure they are not short-changed of special help.

In an agreement with two federal agencies, state School Superintendent John Huppenthal promised to adopt "valid, reliable and objective criteria'' to identify students who are English Language Learners. Specifically, they have to be tested found proficient in each of four separate areas: reading, writing, speaking and listening.

The deal affects more than the ongoing obligation to provide help. It also requires the state to find those youngsters who were denied further special help in the past because of how Arizona graded those tests and get them the services they need now.

This is the second time in just two years the state, pressured by the federal government, has been forced to change how it deals with students who may need extra help in learning English.

But Huppenthal, in a prepared statement, said there is "no evidence'' Arizona has done anything wrong.

"Any statement to the contrary is irresponsible,'' he said in a prepared statement, saying he is going along to end the dispute.

That pact he signed, though, says if the state does not hold up its end of the bargain, the federal government can take it to court.

Friday's deal is the latest development in what has been a multi-decade dispute over whether the state is doing all it must to comply with long-standing federal laws that require states to ensure that all students have an opportunity to learn English.

Arizona provides special "structured English immersion" classes for students who need to expand their language skills.

But such students must be identified before they can be placed in the classes. And there needs to be an accurate way to determine when they no longer need special help.

The federal departments of Education and Justice said the problem is how Arizona tests its students or, more specifically, how it grades those tests.

According to the complaint, the tests Arizona uses are supposed to measure proficiency in speaking, listening, reading and writing. Students are assigned scores in each area.

What happens is those scores are weighted equally to create a "composite'' score.'

"This, a higher score in one domain can compensate for a lower score in another domain,'' the complaint says. The result is that a student can be considered to be proficient -- and ineligible for special classes for English Language Learners -- even if he or she has scored below that level in one or more areas as long as the composite score is high enough.

Put another way, the complaint says that the state was reclassifying students even if it turned out they were not fully proficient in all four areas. And that, the federal government said, violates the Civil Rights Act.

State officials disagreed.

"A composite score of the language domain is an appropriate determination of a student's English proficiency,'' said Roberta Alley, associate superintendent of assessment and accountability.

"A student who has a composite score of the four domains ... would have to be close to proficient in each of those domains even though they may be slightly below any single domain,'' she said. "In other words, one skill or ability can compensate for another in the measurement model.''

But attorney Tim Hogan, who has been representing parents seeking more services for students, said the practice is designed to save money by limiting the number of children classified as needing more help. And he said this isn't the first time the state has tried to cut corners.

Until 2009 the state used three questions to identify which students from Spanish-speaking households should be further assessed for classification as English language learners: asking parents the primary language used in the home, the language most often spoken by the student, and the first language the youngster learned.

That year, then-state School Superintendent Tom Horne reduced that to the single question of the primary language spoken by the student. If the answer to this question was "English,'' then state education regulations prohibited school districts from even conducting an assessment of the youngster's proficiency.

The result, according to federal officials was dramatic: The year it was implemented, the number of students classified as English learners was less than 100,000, a drop of about 33,000 from the prior year.

Facing federal sanctions, state officials backed down and returned to the three-question survey. Hogan said what the state tried here is just another example of the same thing.

"The survey and the test were designed to reduce the number of English Language Learners,'' Hogan said. "They did a good job of that -- artificially,''

There are currently about 70,000 students classified as English learners out of nearly 1.1 million students statewide.

"Now the state is going to have to go back and figure out who really is an English Language Learner who got kicked out of the program because of a poorly designed test and the way the test was scored,'' Hogan said.

Huppenthal, however, said his agency "does not accept the federal government's assertion that Arizona incorrectly identified students as proficient.''

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