Schools monitor pupils' language progress

Ana Zurita, 18, has been in the United States for three years. She can understand English but speaking is still a challenge.

Astoria High School staff frequently monitor her progress in "English as a second language" courses. She takes a language test at the beginning and end of the year.

She struggles to understand the deeper sense of the questions.

"Sometimes I can read the story, but I can't understand the real meaning," she said.

After three years in U.S. schools, non-native English speakers must take traditional assessments, said Astoria special education director Diane Higgins. If Ana was a sophomore, she would be tested and her scores would count in the district totals.

"I feel bad when I don't pass a test because I think I have to take it again," she said.

Ana typically doesn't fare well on standard tests. On a scale of A to F, her English skills are at "B."

Research shows students need

five years in a country to gain

proficiency, Higgins said.

Most local districts have too small a non-native English population to be statistically valid. These districts are not accountable for the students' performance under No Child Left Behind.

The only Clatsop County district with enough students, Seaside, passed the state requirements. Some 46 Seaside students took the English test - only four more than needed to be held accountable. Nine students - nearly 20 percent - passed the test. A large statistical margin of error propelled the district scores over the 40 percent requirement.

Astoria ELL teacher Delcina Phelps recently graduated with a master's in education from Oregon State University, where standized testing is unpopular.

"They say, 'They're unfair. They're culturally biased,'" Phelps said. "Even if you translate them, there are some things that they won't understand because they're part of our culture."

Often effort doesn't come across on tests.

"Some of them have worked really hard and long, and some just whipped through it and didn't care," she said.

But Phelps sees even more resistance in communities who believe immigrants should be speaking English by the time they've arrive.

Ana studied some English in school in Mexico. But she wasn't concerned about learning English. She thought people in the United States would speak Spanish.

English has become crucial for her and her family during their three years in the states. Her father needed to learn some English to work at a cannery.

She uses her skills at her job at Las Maracas in Long Beach, Wash. And she finds she's a better student here in a country where schools provide endless aid to meet requirements that aren't as stringent.

"Here is more easy than in Mexico, our only problem is the language," Zurita said.

- Jennifer Collins

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