PHOENIX -- On a recent morning in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe, teacher Fatima Hughes led a group of fourth graders in a vocabulary lesson.
A few of the students in her classroom were once classified as English Language Learners, but they passed a test known as the AZELLA, and were entered into mainstream classes like this one.
“Wistfully means sadly remembering something nice,” Hughes said to the students. Then she quizzed them. “What does it mean?”
“Sadly remembering something nice,” the students said in chorus.
Hughes asked them to act out wistfully remembering something, and the students mimicked her, putting on their best dreamy expressions.
But now there are questions whether former ELL students across the state who were reclassified into the standard curriculum were appropriately tested for English proficiency.
A federal civil rights investigation by the United States’ Departments of Justice and Education found the AZELLA test to be an inadequate measure of English reading and writing skills, leading to tens of thousands of former ELL students either testing out of English language instruction prematurely, or not properly identified as needing English language instruction.
The federal agencies concluded Arizona’s policies violated civil rights law.
Arizona’s Department of Education denied any fault, but reached a settlement with the federal government this August. Otherwise, the state would have risked a federal lawsuit or a loss of federal education funds.
The settlement requires changes to the AZELLA test.
It also required school districts to contact parents of former ELL students who had low scores on Arizona’s main standardized test, the Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) reading and writing portions, or low scores on the AZELLA’s reading and writing portions, and offer additional help in those subjects.
“To say 'here is where your child is, here’s all the services that we are providing for your child,'” said Christine Trujillo, who is in charge of curriculum for Tempe Elementary School District. “Are you interested in any of these other services that we could also provide, and this is what it would look like.”
That was the message at more than 500 parent-teacher meetings in Trujillo’s school district. To be in compliance with the federal settlement, all meetings had to be conducted by Dec.15.
“It’s an enormous task in a very short time,” Trujillo said.
At Phoenix Union High School District, the list of parents to contact about additional tutoring included more than 1,500 names, though not all of the students still attend schools in the district.
“This is really an unfunded mandate,” said district spokesman Craig Pletenik, who said the district had not received any additional funds from the state to comply with the settlement. “We are now being asked to provide before-school tutoring and programs, during school, Saturday school, after school.”
No federal funds were provided with the settlement, since compliance with federal civil rights law is a mandatory condition for receiving the federal funds that Arizona already receives.
Pletenik said many schools in his district have existing tutoring sessions and additional reading and writing classes that some of these former ELL students can attend.
But he said the federal investigation calls into question the dramatic drop in the ELL student population seen in the past few years. He said his district went from 4,000 ELL students five years ago, to just 1,000 this year.
“We believe that students may have been placed outside of ELL, or moved through ELL at too quick a pace,” Pletenik said. “When in fact, then they struggled. They struggled with AIMS, they struggled with English reading, and English writing.”
Another reason for the dip in ELL student numbers is because of changes Arizona made in 2009 to the home language survey schools use to find out if students needed English Language Learner services. That year the questionnaire was shortened from three questions to just one question, “What is the primary language of the student?”
An earlier DOJ and DOE investigation concluded the survey was missing too many non-English proficient students, and a settlement signed in 2011 required schools to revert back to a three-question survey, that included questions about the students’ first language, and the language of the household.
But with the extreme drop in the ELL student population seen in the Phoenix Union High School District over the past several years, the district cut back on experienced ELL teachers, and ELL student-parent liaisons.
“We greatly reduced the amount of people who are serving the ELL population because the numbers have diminished,” Pletenik said. “The question is whether those numbers really should have diminished, and whether those students are fluent.”
Testing and identifying ELL students aren’t the only controversial parts of the Arizona’s English Language Learner program.
The same federal agencies are also investigating a complaint that Arizona’s use of a mandatory four-hour block of English grammar instruction for ELL students separates them from the rest of the student population, and prevents them from studying other topics.