PHOENIX -- In the coming weeks, Arizona school districts will begin identifying students who were misclassified as proficient in English. That's the first phase of a new civil rights settlement reached between the Arizona Department of Education and the federal government.
The US Department of Justice and Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights found Arizona’s English-Language Learners — known as ELLs — tested out of ELL classes before they were ready. Other students weren't properly identified as lacking English language skills in the first place.
The settlement requires Arizona to overhaul its English proficiency test.
By December 15, Arizona school districts must reassess whether tens of thousands of students are English proficient, and offer some of those students additional reading and writing help.
“We would just like for the office of civil rights to get off our back,” said Arizona Superintendent John Huppenthal.
He signed the settlement last week, but strongly disagrees there are problems with the state program.
“We have very good scientists when it comes to the nature of the tests,” Huppenthal said. “We think the quality of what we are doing with the English language learners is the best in the nation.”
But Eugene García, an Arizona State University emeritus professor of education, came to a different conclusion in his own research in 2010. He found Arizona’s English proficiency test wasn’t a good predictor of whether students could keep up with grade level course work, suggesting that students were being classified as English proficient prematurely.
“All the data essentially suggests that the school and the state is not doing 'just great' with regard to these kids,” Garcia said. “Unfortunately it takes a civil rights complaint and a Justice Department to come down and say to Arizona to do what’s right.”
Garcia applauded the settlement, but says school districts are going to need additional resources to do their part of reassessing students and offering extra instruction.
“What this does is reopen the conversation about funding, state funding,” Garcia said. “And certainly school districts will argue, ‘This is a state responsibility, where is the funding for this?’”
The state risked enforcement, including losing federal funds, if it did not reach a settlement with the departments of Justice and Education.
Last year, a settlement with the same federal agencies forced Arizona to change the survey it uses to identify new ELL students. The agencies are also investigating a civil rights complaint that Arizona’s use of a four-hour ELL class segregates those students.