Arizona Accused Of Violating Student Civil Rights

Host Michel Martin speaks to Superintendent Tom Horne of Arizona about allegations that Arizona violated student civil rights by denying some non-native English speakers access to special programs for English Language Learners. Superintendent Horne joins us on the phone from his home.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, in our money coach conversation we will talk about freshening up that resume. Now, that could be a big issue in these tough economic times. So we'll have that conversation in a few minutes.

But first, though, we turn to Arizona, a state that has generated national headlines for its tough stance on illegal immigration. Today, though, the issue is education. Last week a Justice Department investigation concluded that the state is violating the 1964 Civil Rights Act by denying its non-native English-speaking students access to an equal education.

The complaint claims that thousands of students were deemed proficient in English, despite having failed an English proficiency exam. And once a student is declared to be proficient, they are no longer given access to those English language assistance programs. We wanted to know more about this, so we've called Arizona state - the superintendent of public instruction, Tom Horne. He's with us now from his home office. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. TOM HORNE (Superintendent of Public Instruction, Arizona): Good to be with you.

MARTIN: First, we should mention that we called the Justice Department to ask if they wanted to provide a statement or participate in our conversation and their comment was no comment. I also think it's fair to mention that you're a candidate for public office, for another office - that's correct, isn't it? You're a candidate for state attorney general?

Mr. HORNE: Yes, I'm the Republican candidate for attorney general.

MARTIN: All right, well, with that being said, as I understand it there are two issues here. One is this testing issue, as we discussed, that the Arizona English Language Learner Assessment and that the scoring on it - the Justice Department claims - says that students are deemed proficient even when they really aren't. So could you respond to that?

And then the second question, of course, tends to this question of their English, the home language survey. And I think that's a separate issue. So could you just give us your baseline response to this?

Mr. HORNE: And there's actually a third issue pertaining to the teachers being proficient in English in order to teach kids that are learning English. So there are really three issues.

MARTIN: Okay, so what's your response to that on behalf of the state?

Mr. HORNE So you want to take the first one?

MARTIN: Yeah. Take them separately if you would.

Mr. HORNE: Sure. When I took office we had a number of different tests that were used to determine whether students should be reclassified as English proficient. The federal government under No Child Left Behind told us that we had to change to a single test and it had to be aligned to our academic standards because you want to teach the kids English that is academic English and not other kinds of English, you know, not tourist English, but academic English.

And so in order to act quickly - there wasn't time to develop a new test - we had to buy the best off-the-shelf test we could find, which turned out to be the California test. So the first year we adopted the California test and then the federal government rule was that we had to align that more closely to our own standards rather than the California standards.

So we had task forces of teachers, Arizona teachers, write additional questions that would bring the test more into alignment with Arizona standards. And we did that, just as we were instructed by the federal government. And when I say we did that, actually, we contracted with a testing company - we're using Pearson, which is the largest testing company in the country. One of the issues is that the test is a cumulative test. That is, if you do very well on one part and not quite so well on another part, you may still get a passing grade, just as in a math test. If you did real well in algebra, not quite so well in geometry, you might still pass the math test as a whole.

That was in the federal guidelines that it was permissible to have that and the testing company chose to do it. Now they're criticizing us for something that was in their own guidelines and saying that it shouldn't be a cumulative test, you should have to pass every section on its own, on its own. Although to some extent that's true now because you have to at least make intermediate on all sections. And then you have to do well enough in enough sections so that you pass the test.

The people who write these tests are called psychometricians. I suggested that the psychometricians for the federal government get together with the psychometricians for the testing company. If the federal government has any complaints about the nature of the test, they can talk with the psychometricians for Pearson. Pearson's, I suspect, are more experienced and better. But there is no reason they can't talk to each other and see if they want some changes in the test.

MARTIN: Well, that really leads to my question here - I'm interested to know your opinion on what this is about. Do you think that there's just a mismatch of expectations or is this in part perhaps a conflict in philosophies about what proficiency means and how far a state should go to assure proficiency. What's your sense of this?

Mr. HORNE: There's no conflict in philosophies as far as I'm concerned. You know, we didn't tell somebody to make the test hard or easy, we simply turned the task over to the testing company in compliance what the federal government asked us to do.

MARTIN: But presumably other states are using these tests or a similar test, so the question would be why is Arizona the one being criticized?

Mr. HORNE: 'Cause we got into a conflict with the federal government over Senate Bill 1070 and they're coming down on us in every way they can think of.

MARTIN: You think so? It's retaliation for your tough stance - or the state's tough stance on immigration?

Mr. HORNE: No question about it.

MARTIN: And when you say no question about it, how do you know?

Mr. HORNE: I could because I can illustrate how ridiculous some of their positions are. In this case, there's no philosophical difference so I think they're making a psychometric point that I think will turn out to be invalid. But I'm happy to have them talk to each other.

But let's talk about the question of how you determine whether a kid should be tested in the first place. This is the argument over three questions or one question. They used to ask three questions. As far as I'm concerned, there's one question that's relevant. And that question is: What is the primary language of the student? If the primary language of the student is English, the student should not be in an English language learner class.

If their primary language is something else, then the student should be tested to determine the students' capabilities. Now, they used to have three questions where they would also ask things like, is there anyone in your household who speaks a different language? So if there was a grandmother in the household who spoke a different language, the student got tested. The student might fail the test not because of language reasons, but because of academic reasons, 'cause the student's only language might be English.

But they might have academic problems, in which case they need academic help, but they shouldn't be in an English language learner class. And I got complaints, especially from the Navaho Reservation. Navaho people were very upset because their kids were put in English language learner classes when English was their only language that they spoke, because there was a grandmother in the house that spoke Navaho.

And so the kid's sitting in a class and being told this is a table, this is a chair, and the kid thinks, this is crazy, why are you teaching me this? English is my only language. Because they answered a question that said - does anyone in your household speak a different language? So we went to one question, which is what is the primary language of the student.

The federal government wants us to go back to putting kids into an English language learner class because there's a grandmother in the house that speaks a different language.

MARTIN: It's a very interesting question. We thank you for taking the time to give your take on it and I do want to emphasize once again, we did invite the Department of Justice to participate in the conversation and they, and they declined.

Mr. HORNE: Their position is ridiculous. I don't blame them for not coming...

MARTIN: All right. Tom Horne is the Arizona state superintendent for public instruction, and as he also told us, he's also a candidate for attorney general. He joined us on the phone from his home in Phoenix.

Mr. HORNE: We need statewide officers who are willing to stand up to the federal government.

MARTIN: All right, thank you. Thank you, Mr. Horne.

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