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Dist. 214 struggling to find a fair test for teens
District to give English learners two options on state tests
By Sheila Ahern | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 2/8/2008 12:16 AM | Updated: 2/8/2008 12:26 AM

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Students new to English will have two options when taking state tests next year in Northwest Suburban High School District 214.

Students with fewer English skills will be told to attempt each section "until the point of frustration," said Norm Kane, District 214's director of the English Language Learner program.

When they no longer understand test questions, they will be told to put down their pencils, Kane said.

About 25 percent of District 214 new-to-English students fall into this lower category. About 75 percent of those students fall into a second, higher skills group. The higher skilled English learner students will be given time-and-a-half to complete the Prairie State Achievement Exam, which includes the ACT test.

District 214 officials talked about the two options at a briefing before Thursday's school board meeting.

Making all English learners take difficult tests, such as the ACT test, might not be fair to students not comfortable with the English language, said Steve Cordogan, District 214's director of research and development.

"The ACT is one of -- if not the -- most rigorous tests for college-bound English speaking students," he said. "There are some (English leaner) students who may not be able to answer any questions."

All third- through eighth-graders, no matter how new to English, now must take the Illinois State Assessment Test this spring; and all high school juniors must take the Prairie State Achievement Exam, including the ACT.

In the past, English learners took the Illinois Measure of Annual Growth in English test, written in simpler English.

The decision to drop the IMAGE test has rankled local educators, who say non-native speakers will struggle unfairly to meet standards set by the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The switch, ordered by the Illinois State Board of Education, could sink test scores across the suburbs. District 214 expects a significant drop in scores because of the change, Cordogan said.

"We will probably see scores drop to the levels we had several years ago, when scores were not nearly as high," Cordogan said.

And, like other recent overhauls of the state assessment system, it will make comparisons between future and prior years' test scores invalid.

Under the federal law, entire schools and districts can be labeled failing if their English language learners don't meet standards, even if all other groups of students make the grade.

Failing schools and districts face both state and federal sanctions, which run the gamut from having to offer tutoring and school choice to replacing large portions of the staff.

About 7 percent of Illinois students fall into the English learners category. In District 214, that figure is 6.6 percent, or about 830 students, Cordogan said.