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Federal education rules put newcomers at disadvantage Immigrant pupils forced to have English proficiency too soon

Seventh-grader Elnur Karadzhayev has adapted remarkably well since coming to Buffalo 16 months ago from his native Russia, where he spoke no English.

But Elnur's growing confidence in his new language took a hard hit earlier this month. That's when he was required to take a test in English literacy.

Despite less than two years' exposure to English, Elnur -- like classmates who have been here all their lives -- was asked to interpret literature and poetry at a fairly sophisticated level.

"It was scary," said Elnur, a pupil at Buffalo's International School 45. "I can't sleep. I don't want to fail. I never failed before."

Elnur is not alone.

New federal rules forced Buffalo-area schools to give more than 1,000 immigrant and refugee children assessment tests in English that most couldn't begin to handle, according to state education officials, local superintendents and the state's teachers union.

"It's terrible," said Karen Kane, who teaches seventh-grade English as a second language at the International School. "It's very stressful. We ask the kids to do their best, but we're handing them something that's far beyond their level."

For example, the eighth-grade assessment test given earlier this month required pupils to answer nuanced multiple-choice questions about stories on inheritance, the Underground Railroad during the era of slavery and a traditional form of Japanese poetry called haiku.

The pupils also were asked for written responses to several stories and poems that they read or that were read to them. Spelling, grammar and punctuation were graded, along with content.

Some pupils cried when given the tests earlier this month, others drew pictures on the answer sheets, and still others put their names on the test but couldn't answer any questions, school officials said.

"Any intelligent person would look at this and say it's irrational," said David Magavern, a third-grade English-as-a-second-language teacher at the International School. "Why are we doing this?"

The test scores also are used to determine which schools are cited by the state as being in need of improvement and therefore required to launch improvement plans.

The new federal requirement makes it almost certain that schools with large numbers of immigrant and refugee children will be cited by the state as needing improvement and then remain indefinitely on the watch list, said Colleen L. Carota, principal of the International School.

Until this year, Elnur and other pupils from non-English-speaking countries were allowed to take less-demanding competency tests to measure their growth in English until they had been in the United States for three years. In some cases, waivers enabled those pupils to take the competency tests for five years.

But this year, the federal Department of Education ruled that "English language learners" who have been in the country more than one year also must take the more sophisticated assessment tests in grades 3-8, just like pupils who were born here.

In Buffalo, that required testing 873 additional pupils, many with no previous schooling or who lived in refugee camps, experienced war or famine and struggled for basic survival before coming here.

Federal officials defend the new regulation, saying the literacy level of pupils can't be determined if they're not tested. The tests, they said, also give the public important data on individual schools and helps pinpoint needed improvements in curriculum and teaching methods.

Pupils new to this country generally need about three years to prepare for the English assessment tests, and sometimes more, said Tamara Pozantides, Buffalo's director of multilingual education.

In Lackawanna, many of the 400 English language learners -- most of them from Yemen -- were also forced to take the tests after being here just a year or two, said Paul Hashem, Lackawanna superintendent.

The new ruling results from an interpretation of the No Child Left Behind Act, a federal law that relies heavily on assessment testing to track pupil progress.

"This is about the U.S. Department of Education being a bully," said Maria Neira, vice president of the New York State United Teachers. "This is about looking at what is fair. The losers, unfortunately, are the pupils."

School 45 is already on the state's list of schools needing improvement, despite an international reputation for excellence in working with immigrant and refugee pupils.

"We're really having great successes, and it doesn't show," Carota said.

Chad Colby, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said that the literacy level of children can't be determined if they aren't tested and that the intent of the No Child Left Behind Act is to test the vast majority of pupils.

Limiting exemptions from the test, he added, provides a broader view of achievement levels at individual schools. "The public has a right to know how these schools are doing," Colby said.

He said New York State had the option of testing the literacy of immigrant and refugee children by using tests in their native languages but chose not to. But devising those tests would take about two years and be costly, said Jean Stevens, acting deputy superintendent of the state Education Department.

Also, those tests would only cover a relative handful of predominant languages and not the more than 100 languages spoken in New York State schools.

At Buffalo's International School alone, more than 50 languages are spoken, including Russian, Arabic, Farsi and Mandarin Chinese. In the last few years, the school has had a major influx of children from Somalia and Burma.

Instead, the state will continue lobbying to give refugee and immigrant youngsters more time before they must take the assessment tests.

"We're going to keep pushing this issue," said Robert M. Bennett, chancellor of the state Board of Regents. "This is not fair to children, and it doesn't meet the test of common sense."


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