Illinois Lowers Cut-off Scores for Immigrant Kids

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Education officials in Illinois are trying to make statewide achievement tests fairer. They have decided to lower the passing score on those tests for students who aren't fluent in English. Critics argue the move harms the goals behind the No Child Left Behind Act.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The state of Illinois has lowered the passing score on its statewide tests for students who are not fluent in English. The state says that will make the test fairer. Critics fear that such a move contradicts the high standards called for under the No Child Left Behind law. Jay Field reports from Chicago Public Radio.

JAY FIELD reporting:

Cardenas Elementary School occupies two ragged buildings in Little Village, a predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood on Chicago's West Side. Most kids here are off until September, but inside the school, second-grader Avaleno Pazzano(ph) is already prepping for next year.

AVALENO PAZZANO (Second-Grader): (Reading) `The rest of your party is on the way,' said Francine. `What's a birthday party without all of your friends?'

Ms. LAURA IBARRA(ph) (Teacher): OK. Thank you very much, Avaleno.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. IBARRA: Now, Avaleno brought this book because she wanted to share it with you guys. OK?

FIELD: Teacher Laura Ibarra is leading Pazzano and 14 classmates through five weeks of extra reading instruction. It's important because next spring these students will take State Achievement Tests for the first time. Half the kids in this class are in bilingual education. When their peers sit for the regular third-grade tests, these children will take a different exam. It's called IMAGE, and it was once used to measure English proficiency only. When No Child Left Behind took effect, the state decided the tests would be a good way to assess reading and math skills. But almost immediately, there were problems.

Ms. BECKY McCABE (Illinois State Board of Education): The teachers, the program directors, administrators in the field were saying, you know, this is unfair to our kids.

FIELD: Becky McCabe with the Illinois State Board of Education says officials had changed the purpose of the IMAGE test, but it left in place high passing scores that were initially meant to ensure immigrant kids weren't moved out of bilingual education too soon.

Ms. McCABE: No one else has these high cut scores. It's only fair that the students be allowed to show what their performance is based on the way the other tests are set up for cut scores.

FIELD: So in June, the State Board decided to intervene. After consulting with the US Department of Education, it lowered the cut-off score. Almost certainly, thousands of additional students next spring will be marked as passing. But some critics say that doesn't mean these students are actually improving. Mike Petrilli, a vice president with the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, worked at the Education Department during President Bush's first term.

Mr. MIKE PETRILLI (Thomas B. Fordham Foundation): As No Child Left Behind has required states to set standards and hold schools accountable to them, we see that there's an enormous amount of pressure to lower the standards, to make it easier for students to pass these tests.

FIELD: Petrilli says many districts simply don't want to put the hard work in to help limited English speakers and other groups with special challenges improve. That argument angers Javier Botoma(ph), who runs No Child Left Behind programs for Chicago Public Schools. After all, says Botoma, the law gives states freedoms to decide what students need to know.

Mr. JAVIER BOTOMA (Runs No Child Left Behind Programs In Chicago): I think it's really interesting that when states exercise the right and responsibility that was vested in them in the legislation to write something that was methodologically wrong, that they actually are accused of changing the standards.

FIELD: The debate over how high to set the bar for students learning English is certain to continue in Illinois and elsewhere as even tougher requirements of No Child Left Behind kick in this coming school year. For NPR News, I'm Jay Field in Chicago.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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