Federal determination might hurt school districts with students who are learning to speak English

Clare Jellick

Districts which have students learning to speak English are reeling over a change in state testing that will no longer allow these kids to take a special assessment.

Previously, the state had allowed some English language learners to take a test called the Illinois Measure of Annual Growth in English (IMAGE) that helped account for their language deficiencies. Now they must take the same state assessments as their English-speaking counterparts.

"What upsets me is it puts students in a situation that we can’t possibly fully prepare them for. … The impact on students is what upsets me more than anything else," said District 150 research director Bryan Chumbley, who found out about the change Thursday.

District 150’s biggest non-native speaking population is Hispanic. Last school year, 460 kids whose first language is Spanish attended District 150 schools. But about 50 different languages are represented in the student body.

In recent state testing, 120 students took the IMAGE.

The overriding concern is the impact on students’ test scores and ultimately the performance of schools and districts. The federal government requires that districts and schools meet standards related to state testing.

"I’m concerned that it may have a negative impact on not only the students, but in terms of the whole district, I’m concerned that it’ll have a negative impact on our performance as well," Chumbley said.

In Depue, two employers have attracted a large Hispanic population to the area. The change is "huge" at the local district where about 125 kids speak Spanish as their first language, said counselor Shelley Gorenz.

"I would like them to have a test that matches their language needs. I wouldn’t want to take a test written in Spanish and have no idea what it says," said Gorenz of Depue District 103.

The IMAGE featured simplified English terms and didn’t include a writing test or any questions where writing was required to answer questions.

All English-language learners will take either the Illinois Standards Achievement Test or the Prairie State Achievement Exam. The reading and math portions will include questions where students must write "extended responses" and some students will also be tested in science and writing.

There will be accommodations such as more test time or a glossary but those details haven’t been finalized yet, said Illinois State Board of Education spokesman Matt Vanover.

The state must make the change because the U.S. Department of Education determined that the IMAGE test wasn’t an acceptable assessment. The ISAT and the PSAE will be used for two years while the state comes up with a better test.

"There were problems with the alignment to the Illinois learning standards and also comparability to the ISAT and the PSAE. … We tried to address their concerns but their response was that it wasn’t acceptable," Vanover said.

When it comes to the promised accommodations, Chumbley at District 150 is fuming that they haven’t been finalized. His teachers need time to introduce the accommodations to their students and practice using them during sample tests.

He’s been told that accommodation information won’t be available until December.

"How can our teachers prepare our students for a testing situation they’ll be put in the first week of March when we don’t know what the approved accommodations are?" he asked.

He said students who would have taken the IMAGE should have extra time to take the tests and portions read aloud to them. He also thinks students at the lowest levels of English proficiency shouldn’t have to write.

"These students … have virtually no chance of being successful in those areas," he said.

Gorenz, who organizes the testing at Depue 103, said if students don’t have assistance with reading the tests, performance will likely be impacted.

"We have a lot of kids who know how to speak (English), but they don’t understand what they’re reading," Gorenz said.

Clare Jellick can be reached at (309) 686-3112 or cjellick@pjstar.com.