WASHINGTON - Schools will gain flexibility in measuring the progress of students with limited English skills through two policy changes announced yesterday by the U.S. Department of Education.
The revisions mean that many U.S. school districts might find it easier to meet their yearly progress goals and avoid penalties imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act, federal education officials said. About 5.5 million public school students are enrolled in programs teaching English as a second language.
Under the current education law, schools nationwide are required to test all students in grades three through eight, including those who are still learning English. Schools must meet annual testing objectives or they can face sanctions as severe as a state takeover.
Many state education leaders have complained that students new to English perform poorly on state tests because of the language barrier and thus make it hard for schools to meet the federal expectations.
U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige said at a news conference that the new rules are intended to give schools more flexibility.
Under the first change, reading and writing tests for students enrolled less than a year will be optional rather than mandatory. But because those students will be tested on their knowledge of the language and will also take mathematics tests, they will count toward the law's requirement that 95 percent of a school's students be tested.
The second change will allow schools to count students as "limited English proficient" for two years after they are reclassified as fluent English speakers, enabling schools to show progress in measuring improvement of language skills.
"I am confident that these policies will improve education for our English-language learners and that they will help schools meet the goals of No Child Left Behind," Paige said.
Paige pledged that he would renew talks with advocacy groups and lawmakers, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat who has been critical of the implementation and funding of the act. The Education Department, Paige said, will continue to assess "kinks and adjustments that need to be made" to fulfill legislative requirements.
Kennedy supported the revisions but maintained his critical stance on the overall act.
"It's a short-sighted solution and a limited fix," he said. "Until the department focuses on improving quality of tests used to measure progress of limited English proficiency children, we won't have an accurate picture of those students' role in school accountability."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.