Walfrank Piñeiro has been on the honor roll every semester since emigrating from Cuba two years ago. He's earned awards for academic excellence at the school, district and state level.
Despite the accolades, the 15-year-old has been unable to pass state exams in math, his strongest subject. He recently failed a retake of the crucial Algebra I exam by three points.
He has been tripped up repeatedly by word problems that educators concede measure reading as much as math skills.
"I think it should be just numbers," the Wekiva High junior said of the algebra test, which is a Florida graduation requirement. "We're talking about math."
In Florida, more than 250,000 students like Walfrank are considered English-language learners, third nationally behind California and Texas. But Texas and more than a dozen other states give students a chance to take state exams in their native language.
"These tests are not measuring, to the full extent, the students' knowledge of the content," said Charlene Rivera, research professor and executive director of George Washington University's Center for Equity and Excellence in Education.
As Florida and most other states head toward a shared curriculum called Common Core, parents, advocates and experts are pushing for new tests that will reflect what these students know more accurately than state exams like Florida's FCAT. The League of United Latin American Citizens, a national group, wants Spanish versions of these tests to be developed at the same time.
Federal law requires states to test nearly every English-language learner except those who have been in the country less than a year. And while Florida gives extra credit to districts where new English learners improve performance, the consequences of depressed scores can snowball to the school and district level.
Last year, 91 percent of English-language learners in Florida and in Orange County failed the 10th Grade Reading FCAT — including Walfrank Piñero. This is not a new problem. State data shows Florida's English-language learners have been struggling in English and math since at least 2004.
But the stakes are high for the state's 2.7 million English learners, including about 43,000 in Central Florida. Statewide, about 1 in 4 Hispanic students is considered an English learner.
Last year, a task force convened by the state Board of Education recommended changing the state's grading system to factor students' English proficiency levels into FCAT results. The recommendation was not adopted.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires states to test students in the language most likely to "yield valid results," when possible.
But most states, including Florida, give students with minimal English skills the standard state tests. The students can get some extra help, including more time to finish, bilingual dictionaries, instructions read aloud and testing in small groups. Florida also allows teachers to answer questions about directions or specific words or phrases in the student's native language.
So far, Florida has shown no inclination to embrace tests in Spanish, Haitian Creole and other languages spoken by thousands of Florida public-school students.
Rep. Ricardo Rangel, D-Kissimmee, said he thinks the state shouldn't translate tests. "It won't help them in the long run," he said.
A former ESOL student, Rangel thinks children do best when immersed in English. He said testing should be in English as well. At most, directions should be translated, Rangel said. He also supports efforts to give English learners more time to become fluent before their scores count. Experts say it takes about six years for someone to become fluent in a new language.
But time is running out for Walfrank, who spoke no English when his family moved to Florida to join his grandfather in June 2011. And despite hard work and tutoring, he has fallen short on the state tests. That includes math, one of his strongest subjects.
"It would be good for them to translate into Spanish so I can really understand what they're asking," he said.
"For these students in the country four years or less, it's really unfair to test them in English," said Carol Duberstein, the ESOL director at Wekiva High School. "The test has to be valid and reliable."
Joe Follick, communications director for the Florida Department of Education, said the department doesn't have the authority to develop tests in other languages. "We must consider our objective of helping all Florida students master English while taking into account the literally hundreds of different languages that are spoken in Florida's schools," he said.
In Orange County, students speak more than 160 languages, but only Spanish and Haitian Creole are spoken by significant numbers of the district's 25,000 English-learners.
Among states with large populations of non-native English speakers, Nevada, Texas and New Mexico translate tests for students. New York translates math only, while Nevada and New Mexico also translate reading tests.
But experts say test translations aren't as helpful as they might seem.
"Native language testing is helpful for English learners only if they have been instructed in their native language," said Joan Herman, a senior scientist with CRESST, the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards & Student Testing at UCLA.
In other words, if a student takes Algebra in English, they should be tested in English, because that's the language they learned the subject in. Conversely, students who take math in Spanish in a dual-language or bilingual program should be tested in Spanish.
The lack of a test in Spanish is one reason Rahim Jones, principal of Engelwood Elementary in Orange County, said he shies away from bilingual programs, which aim for fluency in two languages, even though nearly half of his students are considered English-language learners.
"I truly love bilingual education," said Jones, who helped bring the school grade up to a C this year. "But they have to take a test in third grade" in English only, he said.
Herman said translated tests can be beneficial for certain groups of students, particularly those at the middle or high school level who had a strong foundation in their home language before coming to the United States. Walfrank Piñeiro is that type of student.
Jamal Abedi, a professor of psychometrics at the University of California, Davis, said another route is to offer a version of the test that uses simpler language, but without "dumbing down" the content.
Only Virginia offers a math test with simplified English, according to a database maintained by George Washington University. Another 17 states either translate tests, offer tests with side-by-side translations or publish instructions in multiple languages.
In July, a key multi-state group developing tests for the new Common Core assessments proposed rules for English learners. Florida's ESOL chief, Chane Eplin, played a major role.
In their vision, the online tests would have options to play instructions aloud, "cross out" multiple-choice options and flag questions to come back to later. Definitions for some words would also be available on-screen, something Walfrank said would have helped him tremendously.
Under the proposed rules, English learners would also be able to get instructions clarified in their own language, and beginning English speakers could dictate answers in English for math tests. Extended time and small groups would also continue to be options.
But Duberstein said translation could help Walfrank show what he already knows.
"Just because he doesn't read English doesn't mean he's not literate," she said.
If Walfrank, a star baseball pitcher, doesn't pass the Algebra exam and the state's 10th-grade reading test, he won't be able to graduate with a diploma and follow his dream to study sports medicine. He said his classmates in ESOL are facing the same problems.
Walfrank's mother, Johanna Aparicio, said her son knows the math, but can't show it on the standardized tests. "It's incredible he doesn't get a passing grade on something he puts incredible effort into," she said in Spanish.
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