Florida Will Fight U.S. Education Department Over English Learners

Oct 17, 2014

Althea Valle teaches a class of ELL's. She says of the new federal requirement, "I think it’s going to put a lot of pressure on the schools to get these kids where we think they should be."
Credit Gina Jordan/StateImpact Florida

A 10th grader born in Haiti struggles to read in his class at Godby High School in Tallahassee. The student is more comfortable with Haitian Creole than English. Teacher Althea Valle has students of various nationalities trying to master the language.

“It’s a challenge,” Valle says. “There’s a lot of gesturing, and you know sometimes I feel like I’m onstage and sometimes I have to be onstage to make myself understood.”

Valle is the ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) coordinator for Leon County schools. Her developmental language class is offered as an elective for students who want the extra help, like Anas Al-Humiari from Yemen. His native language is Arabic, and he’s been studying English for 5 years.

“First of all, the words are the main things that get me down and the time, me trying to understand the sentence and what is the article or text actually means,” Al-Humiari says, trying to find the right words.

The Florida Legislature passed a law last spring that says the standardized test scores of English-language learners, known as ELLs, will count toward a school’s overall grade after two years of instruction. But federal law requires the test scores to count after just one year.

Imagine sitting in a math or science class trying to learn the lesson, but not understanding English. That’s the situation for many of Florida’s ELLs. Valle says most of them need three to five years of language instruction before they can be proficient on standardized assessments.

“After two years, it’s difficult to say that students will actually achieve this level,” Valle says. “So after one year, we can say they definitely won’t achieve this level.”

Like most states, Florida operates under a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education. The waiver allows the state to use its own grading and accountability rules instead of adhering to federal guidelines under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Now Florida is being told its waiver is in jeopardy because the test scores of ELLs should count toward a school’s overall grade - and teacher evaluations - after just one year of instruction. School grades determine which schools get bonus money, and which ones could be shut down.

In August, Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart told reporters in Miami that Florida’s Hispanic students lead the nation in national assessments, advanced placement courses, and graduation rates.

“It is impossible to think that with the state having this much success with its students why in the world the federal government would want to micromanage, especially when you consider that this is a policy that is working,” Stewart said.

The Miami-Dade school district would be disproportionately impacted by the change. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho says 72,000 of his students are learning English.

“To recognize that after one single year of English-language instruction, a child who does not speak English would be ready to sit for an exam and demonstrate equal proficiency to one who was born in a community that spoke English is not only irrational,” Carvalho said. “It is unfair and unreasonable.”

Carvalho says aggressive federal policies are hurting children and schools.

“Here’s what we have discovered. If you provide an additional year of language instruction, those children in Miami-Dade get to demonstrate 28 percent increased proficiency after an additional year. That is significant,” Carvalho said.

In early September, the state sent a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan giving him 30 days to reverse his decision. Duncan says the progress of ELLs needs to be measured so teachers can help them improve. But ELLs are already assessed to ensure that students and schools are making adequate yearly progress. The difference is that their test scores don’t impact schools grades right away.

About 10 percent of Florida’s public school students are ELLs. That’s approximately 265,000 students. Teacher Althea Valle says testing them -- trying to figure out how much they know -- is tough already.

“If this is to help the students to acquire English faster or to make teachers accountable, I just don’t see how – I think it’s counterproductive,” Valle says.

In an email, Commissioner Stewart told us the federal government has placed a grossly unfair burden on Florida’s students, and the state will take legal action against the U.S. Department of Education.

Update: Late Friday, the Governor's Office announced it has asked Secretary Duncan to designate the Office of Administrative Law Judges to conduct a hearing into the matter. Here is the letter.