Saturday, Jan 6, 2007
You've heard of the schoolyard bully, the one who picks on the most vulnerable children on the playground?The big bully today is none other than the U.S. Department of Education, and among the victims are some of Utica's most vulnerable children — those with learning disabilities and those who are new to this country and do not yet have command of the English language.
In a policy shift that reverses long-standing testing practice, the bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., next week will require New York's 60,000 newly arrived English language learners and thousands of moderately disabled students in special education classes to take the same grade-level tests as the general student population.
Requiring children to take inappropriate tests far beyond their current ability will likely have disastrous consequences for Utica schools. With 1,200 students labeled as having limited proficiency in English — 13.4 percent of the enrollment — Utica will be hit particularly hard by this unwarranted, ill-considered policy shift.
The likelihood is great that many of these foreign-born students — some living in the Mohawk Valley for just 12 months — will fail the ELA tests. And, because of the unbending accountability requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act, too many failures will mean that Utica city schools will be falsely labeled as "in need of improvement" and penalized by the federal government.
Amazing, isn't it? Despite the efforts of Utica's teachers to help the city's large immigrant population learn English and succeed academically, many of these newly arrived students will fail merely because they are being forced to take an unfair test of their skills. And, as a result, Utica public schools will be labeled as failures.
The real, measurable progress that Utica's schools has been making with these student and others toward closing the performance gap will be obscured. Negative publicity will be devastating for teachers, parents and the city.
What's most frustrating is that policymakers in Washington, D.C., and Albany ignored several alternatives that were educationally sound and endorsed by classroom teachers, including nearly 3,500 who wrote the Regents asking them to stand up to the bureaucrats in Washington.
Teachers fiercely lobbied the Regents and state Education Department to allow English language learners to continue to take an appropriate assessment that would fairly measure their progress in learning to read and write English. This test, which had been used successfully since 2003 and had been recently revised to be better aligned with New York's learning standards, was not even reviewed by the federal government.
Teachers also argued that certain special education students should be required to take tests appropriate to their instruction — not the grade of their non-disabled peers.
Sadly, the Regents chose to let the federal ruling stand.
Make no mistake, teachers — and their union, New York State United Teachers — strongly support accountability measures. Teachers support well-designed tests that are aligned with the curriculum, and which fairly measure students' academic progress.
States and school districts should also be held accountable for the performance of all students, including special education students and recently arrived English language learners.
Yet, requiring new immigrant students who are not proficient in English — and students with moderate disabilities -- to take tests they are obviously not able to pass makes a mockery of both the testing and accountability provisions of NCLB.
Expecting a 14-year-old eighth-grader, living in this country for a year, to read and write English as well as a native-born teenager is cruel. Requiring disabled students in special education to be assessed on material several academic years beyond their ability is totally unreasonable. Taken together, it amounts to a concerted effort by the federal government to set vulnerable children and school districts up for failure -- and then penalizing them when they do.
Teachers and parents are natural allies on many issues. In Utica, there must be a strong voice against unfair, unsound and unreasonable testing policies that pick on the weakest. It's time to stand up to the bully.
There is only one option left: Just Say No to Child Abuse!