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The Feds Change the Rules for Immigrant Students in Alabama

Yong Xiang Liang, a junior at Homewood High, must take the Alabama High School Exam to receive a diploma, even though he has lived in this country for only three months.

Until last week, his scores would also have been calculated with those of other immigrants this spring to determine whether his school had helped students with limited fluency in English meet state academic standards.

Alabama education officials began notifying school systems Thursday that they no longer must test students like Liang in reading, language, science and social studies the first year they are in the country. Recent immigrants must still take the math portions of the Stanford Achievement Test, the Alabama Reading and Math Test and the graduation exam, but the scores will not be counted against the school.

The move came after federal officials granted states greater flexibility this month in implementing the No Child Left Behind Act, which demands that all children be proficient in reading and math by 2014. The law requires progress be tracked toward meeting this goal for different groups of students based on language fluency, race, ethnicity and income. Schools face increasingly stiffer penalties if they fail to show adequate yearly progress in all students reaching state standards.

State and local educators across the nation had criticized the mandates for nonfluent immigrants as guaranteeing school failure. Showing academic progress is difficult when children leave the testing group once they become proficient while students with little or no English continue to join, they reported in a Center on Education Policy survey last year.

All six Birmingham metro area schools systems with substantial immigrant populations - Homewood, Hoover, and Shelby, Jefferson, Chilton and Blount counties - landed on watch or priority lists for the scores of their non-fluent immigrant children on the Stanford Achievement Test.

Karen Smith, supervisor for English as a second language at Jefferson County schools, said she was surprised and heartened by the change. For the first time, she said, federal education officials modified No Child Left Behind regulations after listening to the concerns of practitioners.

Immigrant children typically become conversationally fluent in one to two years, she said. The mastery of academic language normally occurs after they have lived in the country for three to five years, she said; Homewood educators said students usually needed seven to 10 years to achieve full fluency.

While schools will likely improve their academic standing to some degree under the new policy, Smith said the real impact will be seen on the children themselves. She has witnessed children breaking down into tears at being unable to understand and complete the tests.

"It is a much more humane option for these kids," Smith said. "I was thrilled."

Nuances of English:

Liang joins five other immigrant students for 50 minutes each day to prepare for the graduation exam.

With the help of teacher Jenny Harvey, they pore over sample tests and discuss the nuances of English the questions ask of them. In choosing a "clear and precise" description of what a dangerous wave would look like, it was far from obvious to them whether the correct adjective should be 10-foot, big or mountainous.

Selecting the most vivid description proved just as vexing. Was it "The red-wing hawk flew quietly upward," or "The red-wing hawk, riding a thermal current, flew out of sight"?

Liang did not understand the difference. The 18-year-old had six years of English instruction in Shanghai, but he learned only a limited vocabulary and came to this country with little ability to converse.

Taking a course in one's native land is far different from using that language to learn new material.

Liang said he can follow the math lessons given by his teacher if he reads over the material the previous night. Understanding literature, though, is another matter.

"I read a short story and I don't know what it says," Liang said. "It's not easy for me. ... Nothing is easy."

How to say hello:

Jose Benaveides, a senior, moved from Peru a year ago this month knowing only how to say hello in English.

He passed the science and math portions of the graduation exam without problem. History and English are much tougher challenges.

He still becomes exhausted at the end of the day from translating everything in his head from English to Spanish. He frequently takes hour-long naps when he returns home from school.

He reminds himself at times how great it is that he learned to speak the language, but the moments in history or English class when he is still unable to follow the lesson make him sad, he said.

Harvey said she tries to create a familial atmosphere for them in her classroom to give them the extra support they often need.

"It is years before they think in English because they often speak their native languages at home," Harvey said. "It is not a level playing field for students still learning English, but they have no other option."

— Vicki McClure
Schools get relief on test scores
Birmingham News


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