- Associated Press - Friday, May 27, 2016

PHOENIX (AP) - Arizona schools are working with federal investigators to resolve civil rights violations for removing thousands of students learning English from language support classes before they were ready.

For the second time in five years the U.S. Department of Justice admonished state education officials for having low testing standards to measure proficiency for English language learners. Those must be raised or the state will face penalties, including losing in federal money, according to a settlement agreement reached earlier this month.

Education experts and teachers warn the state’s low expectations for English proficiency can hurt high school graduation rates and college preparedness for students learning English as a second language.

Arizona’s Department of Education agreed to make the necessary changes, though officials disagree with the investigation’s findings.

“This test was built here in Arizona by Arizona experts in collaboration with Arizona teachers designed to serve Arizona students, so when the federal government tells us we don’t know how to interpret the results of the test to work our model, you can understand it’s a little frustrating,” said Charles Tack, Arizona Department of Education spokesman.

The Arizona Department of Education also has to find out how many students in kindergarten and grades 3-12 need additional help to read, write, listen and speak English in the classroom - then catch them up to speed.

It’s unclear how many students must be re-tested, Tack said. About 70,000 students are enrolled in the state’s English language support programs.

The latest agreement stems from a previous settlement with the federal government that sought to fix the same problem.

In 2012, Arizona schools provided additional reading and writing services to about 28,000 students who left English Language programs too early or were never identified as needing help between 2006 and 2012.

Federal officials said a second settlement agreement is preferable to punishment, such as blocking federal funding or filing a lawsuit through the Department of Justice.

“However, withholding federal funds is a tool that (the Office for Civil Rights) will use, if necessary, to achieve compliance,” said Dorie Turner Nolt, press secretary at the U.S. Department of Education.

The agreement mandates Arizona schools must comply with the Equal Educational Opportunities Act and the Civil Rights Act, which ban racial discrimination and require public schools to offer language programs to ensure equal participation in the classroom.

Removing students from language support classes before they’re fully prepared can have lasting effects, said Pablo Ramirez, assistant professor in teacher preparation at Arizona State University, who specializes in programs for students learning English.

When students don’t receive the necessary language training to understand what’s happening in the classroom, they fail to meet their academic goals, he said. Ramirez stressed that some students may have the social language skills to appear fluent, but still lack the academic language needed to succeed in the classroom.

“When you have a large amount of English language learners who get misplaced or misclassified, they end up struggling,” he said.

Others say Arizona’s low expectations allow schools to claim success and save money at the same time.

“This (settlement) shows they are not accurate measurements, but they can point to them and say ‘this program is working.’ Well, it’s not working,” said Tim Hogan, an attorney that’s fought to change Arizona’s English language learning programs.

Tack said the state’s department of education is adjusting standards and will begin testing students once they are able to figure out how many students need to be re-evaluated, most likely in the fall. Each placement test is expected to cost the state $10.

“Regardless of the disagreements, everyone here that’s involved with English language learners or their assessment is trying to find the best way to help students,” Tack said.

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