Math teacher Karen Rhoades calls it the most “despicable” thing she's ever done as a teacher. Emily Schwartz Keirns, who oversees the English Language Learners program for Fort Wayne Community Schools, said it is clearly the wrong thing to do to children.
Under federal and state accountability laws, immigrant and refugee students who are not proficient in English still must endure Indiana's standardized achievement test and have their scores counted along with classmates who speak only English.
The absurd requirement is in jarring contrast to the supportive environment Northwood Middle School provides for students new to the U.S. As one of the district's ELL (English Language Learners) schools, it is home to almost 150 students learning English as a second language, some of them only a few months removed from refugee camps.
In Room 103, 35 ELL students fill desks squeezed together in a standard-size classroom. One cluster of desks includes a tiny blonde from Ukraine, a dark-haired girl who is among the recent influx of Karen refugees from Myanmar and a Somalian boy whose hand is perpetually in the air with the answer to a question.
Teachers Kim Olden and Jan Decker take turns leading the lesson. On a recent day, they presented columns of words divided into parts of speech and instructed the students to copy the words and write sentences using one word from each column.
In English, classroom assistant Min Nge scolds two Burmese girls talking at the back of the room. English is the only language spoken in the room, where the walls are filled with essays and artwork that could be mistaken for any American classroom if not for the names attached - Omar, Za, Viktoriya and Khin.
There are photos, too: pictures from last spring's seventh-grade trip to Chicago mixed among photos of two small boys at a community garden in a Thai refugee camp, another of sisters posing on a lush, plant-filled patio in Burma. Another shows a dark-haired girl clutching a stuffed animal on a beach in Mexico, alongside a photo of the same smiling girl in front of the fountain at Glenbrook Square.
The lower-level students spend two hours in the ELL classroom. For the rest of the day, they are mainstreamed with all other students in math, science and social studies classes. It's a challenge for the general education teachers, who must teach subject standards regardless of their students' English capabilities. They use lots of pointing and depend on other students to help.
But the language challenge is no less in the classroom dedicated specifically for English instruction. On any given day, a new student with virtually no English skills can arrive.
Decker said she often has to prematurely move a student to the higher-level class because she doesn't have enough spaces in the beginning class. And there's no starting at the beginning with a new student - they must jump in where all of the other students are working.
But the progress they make is astounding. When Suriel Quintana moved with his family to Fort Wayne from a small town in Mexico, he spoke no English. Today, he's in Olden's advanced class, where he joins classmates in reading and discussing news articles on topics such as the effect of ethanol subsidies on the federal land-conservation program.
A bright and engaging 15-year-old, Suriel has been in the U.S. for about 10 years - long enough to be proficient in English and fully prepared to take the annual ISTEP+ exam. That's not the case for the newly arrived immigrants and refugees. Aside from the language barrier, some have had little formal education; Somali students come from a culture without a numbering system.
Rhoades, Northwood's lead sixth-grade math teacher, describes it as “cruel and unusual punishment.”
“They look at you with these big eyes that say, ‘help me.' But you can't,” Rhoades said. “They know it's important to do well, but they must wonder why we're making them do it.”
The Indiana Department of Education allows few accommodations for non-English speakers. They can take the tests in smaller groups and have it administered by a familiar teacher. They are offered more frequent breaks, and they can use a bilingual dictionary. Imagine being asked to take a test in Farsi, with limited time and only an English-Farsi dictionary.
Federal and state accountability law reports - based almost entirely on ISTEP+ results - have a disastrous effect on a school like Northwood. While all other indicators show that its students are succeeding, the school has not met No Child Left Behind standards for the past six years. A close study of the numbers shows that the margin by which the school missed adequate yearly progress targets corresponds closely to the number of its students who are not proficient in English.
“What people don't understand is that when you have a kid who doesn't speak English, you are almost guaranteed they aren't going to pass the language arts portion of ISTEP+,” Principal Matt Schiebel explains. “And they aren't going to fall into just one target category. They are going fall into the Limited English category, but also an ethnic category, and probably the free- and reduced-lunch category. So you get dinged three times.”
Northwood's student population triggers 33 of the 37 targets established under No Child Left Behind. It's only because the school doesn't have more American Indian students that it doesn't hit all 37. By contrast, the mostly white Leo Junior-Senior High School in East Allen County Schools has to hit only 13 targets to make adequate yearly progress each year.
“It's almost like the deck is stacked against you in an (ELL) school,” Schiebel said. “When you isolate the scores, it's those kids who are just learning English that have trouble with the test.”
Moving the test to spring won't make much of a difference. Immigrant and refugee families don't wait for summer vacation to relocate. On a Tuesday late in April, four new limited English students enrolled at Northwood.
Neither Schiebel nor any of the teachers is pointing fingers at the school's ELL students, however. When those students learn English, they often become the top achievers - a point that's obvious when the seventh-grade high honors roll includes the names Yusra Ameir, Htaik Khamom, Poe Oo and Edgar Gonzalez.
“One year, our Hispanic kids outscored the American-born kids on the math portion,” the principal said. “No achievement gap there.”
The problem is with an unconscionable system that forces children who haven't mastered English to pass the same tests in English as all other Indiana students. Foreign-born students shouldn't be exempt from standardized tests, but they deserve a reasonable amount of time to learn a new language before they are subjected to tests in that language. We don't ask high school French students to take all of their high-stakes tests in French four weeks after they begin learning the language. Why we are asking it of even younger children, including some who have been uprooted from their home countries or who spent their first years in a refugee camp?