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Feds investigate PA test for discrimination against English language learners

By Kate Nelson on Jul 1, 2003 01:09 PM

All Pennsylvania public school students are required to meet state-mandated educational standards in reading, writing, and math as measured by the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). But for the more than 12,000 Philadelphia public school students classified as having limited English language proficiency, the administration of the test solely in English makes high achievement a difficult task at best.

On June 30, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced that it would investigate the fairness of administering standardized tests only in English in Pennsylvania’s public schools.

OCR, however, has not yet contacted Pennsylvania Education Secretary Vicki Phillips about the investigation since it made this announcement almost one month ago, according to Susan Enfield, executive assistant to Phillips.

This decision to launch the investigation came one year after the Education Law Center (ELC), a nonprofit group that does legal advocacy work on behalf of children in the state, filed a complaint claiming that by giving the test solely in English the Pennsylvania Department of Education unfairly discriminates against English language learners.

The ELC did correspond with the state Department of Education prior to filing the complaint in July of 2002 in an effort to address the matter without federal intervention, said Len Rieser, executive director of ELC. However, according to Rieser, the state felt that the assessment system did not need to be altered at that time.

Enfield commented that the state "has been working on the issues that were addressed in the complaint voluntarily" and emphasized that their actions were not made solely in response to the ELC’s complaint.

The state is currently developing a Spanish language version of the PSSA and is working to clarify a set of accommodations for students with limited English proficiency who are taking the test, said Enfield.

Advocates both inside and outside of the Philadelphia School District -- which is home to 40 percent of the state’s English language learners -- have been trying to make the PSSA more accessible to students with limited proficiency in English. But without formal state mandates, said Rieser, "there’s a limit to what a school district can do."

Rieser hopes that as a result of the OCR investigation the state will issue a set of accommodations for English language learners that gives clear and detailed instructions on how best to administer the test for these students.

But according to Mary Yee, program specialist in the District’s Office of Educational Equity, for most English language learners testing accommodations alone would probably not be sufficient to make the test fully accessible.

For some, the issue of language proficiency and standardized tests also casts doubt on the logic of using state mandated tests as the main indicator of student progress and achievement.

"[The PSSA] only tests one kind of knowledge," said Yee. "It’s very limited."

For more information contact the Education Law Center at 215-238-6970 or visit

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