A Decatur lawmaker wrote recently that the influx of refugee children is damaging Decatur by lowering school test scores, but a school official said the problem is that the students are tested before they know English and their scores are lumped with all other students when the state evaluates schools.
State. Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, who on Friday said he believes the test scores of such children should not count against the school district until they have more time to obtain English-language proficiency, wrote the recently released letter in April to the head of Catholic Social Services. That organization is responsible for placing unaccompanied minor refugees in the state for the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.
When unaccompanied minors are taken into custody at the border, they are placed under the custody of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. When eligible sponsors are available, the minors are transferred to them for foster care.
“As you know, these children cannot comprehend, read or write in English,” wrote Orr, the Senate education budget committee chairman. “Consequently, many thousands of dollars must now be spent on numerous educational remediation mechanisms thereby taking resources from our already existing high number of poverty students who need additional attention and support. Further, as you know, these same English Language Learners must take all standardized tests after a year of being here.
“Obviously and understandably, their scores are very poor due to language barriers. Nonetheless, these very low test scores mixed with the already challenging environment for our public school educators create a very poor academic showing for Decatur schools when compared to surrounding systems.”
These test scores, Orr asserted in the letter reported by Alabama Daily News, have ramifications beyond education.
“Because of the poor test scores that are a result of poverty and the challenges it presents our students and the growing English Language Learners population, people do not desire to live in Decatur.”
Orr on Friday said his concern over the matter — and his first letter to Catholic Social Services — began in 2017 when he realized a high percentage of the minors coming to Alabama were enrolling at Decatur City Schools. Between 2014 and 2016, 170 unaccompanied minors from Central America enrolled at DCS.
In the eight months between October and the end of June, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, 59,161 unaccompanied minors were placed with sponsors nationwide. The highest number since 2014 was in the year ending Sept. 30, 2019, when 72,837 were placed nationwide. In the eight months ending June 30, 12 states received more unaccompanied minors than Alabama, which received 1,062. The states receiving the most minors were Texas (8,542) and Florida (6,254).
The highest number of minors resettled in Alabama since 2014, as in the nation, was in the fiscal year ending in September 2019, when 1,111 minors were resettled in the state. At the current pace, the number of minor refugees placed under the care of sponsors in Alabama this year will exceed 2019's total.
There are indications that the number of minors apprehended at the border is increasing, which likely will increase the number resettled with sponsors. The Associated Press reported this month that in July, usually a slow month due to stifling and sometimes fatal heat, more than 19,000 unaccompanied minors were picked up at the border, exceeding the previous high of 18,877 in March.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement only releases county-specific data if a county received 50 or more unaccompanied minors in a year, which Morgan County had not as of June. The minors are usually released to areas with higher Hispanic populations, which in Alabama tends to be counties with chicken processing plants or other agricultural industries. Of the minors sent to Alabama between October and June, more than half (636) went, in descending order, to Jefferson, Marshall, Baldwin, Lee, Tuscaloosa, Mobile and Coffee counties.
While almost all unaccompanied minors resettled in Decatur are English Language Learners — meaning they are not proficient in the language — a relatively small percentage of ELL students are unaccompanied minors in the refugee resettlement program, according to Stefanie Underwood, special services supervisor at Decatur City Schools. She said no unaccompanied minors have been enrolled this year.
Orr said he hopes that means his letters to Catholic Social Services are working.
English Language Learners
Decatur City Schools has 1,306 students — about 15% of the student population — who are not proficient in English, their second language, according to Underwood. They are required to take the same achievement tests as other students after one year, frequently years before they have English proficiency.
Pursuant to a 2012 state law, these achievement test scores and other factors are used to assign letter grades to all public schools and school systems in the state.
“The system of testing is not equitable and is not even really measuring what I think they intend to measure,” Underwood said. “They’re expected to take a test completely in English when they can’t speak English fluently yet. And that goes on our report card grade.”
Orr agreed that achievement tests by non-English speakers should not be used in evaluating the quality of their education until enough time has elapsed for them to have a chance at English proficiency.
"Maybe that's three years. Maybe it's four years. But it surely seems like one year is a woefully insufficient time to roll those scores up into the school and district test scores that are on the report card," Orr said. "It's not a good representation of the quality of education being offered."
Michael Sibley, spokesman for the Alabama State Department of Education, said the requirement of incorporating the achievement test scores of state-determined accountability beginning one year after enrollment is grounded in federal law. The federal law does not, however, require states to issue letter grades to schools or school districts that encompass all student subpopulations.
School report card grades were not assigned for the 2019-2020 or 2020-2021 school years due to the pandemic, but in 2018-2019 Decatur City Schools received a score of 83, a B. That year, 13.41% of DCS students were English Language Learners. The DCS report card score was lower than most area school systems, and its percentage of English Language Learners was higher.
Other area scores and the percentage of their student populations that were English Language Learners: Madison County (90, 1.3%), Madison City (96, 4.05%), Morgan County (87, 5.07%), Limestone County (85, 4.18%), Athens City (85, 8.74%), and Lawrence County (84, 0.81%).
English Language Learners pull down Decatur City Schools’ report card grade.
While limited data was collected in 2019-2020 due to the pandemic, the 2018-2019 school year data demonstrates the dilemma for Decatur City Schools.
DCS students as a whole showed a 40.35% proficiency rate in reading. That number was pulled down by the subpopulation of "students with limited English proficiency," only 5.72% of whom demonstrated reading proficiency. In science, the proficiency rate for students with limited English proficiency was 6.25%, compared to the overall rate of 32.35%. Students with a lack of English language skills showed a 21.39% proficiency rate in math, compared to an overall math proficiency rate of 48.65%.
Among other accountability factors used to determine a letter grade for the school system, students with limited English proficiency also scored the lowest among the various subpopulations in graduation rate and in college and career readiness.
The impact of the subpopulation of English Language Learners, and the smaller subset of unaccompanied minors, does not mean they shouldn’t be enrolled at Decatur City Schools, Underwood said. Rather, it is a reason to have a more rational method of holding school systems accountable. A student who cannot read English is well served by DCS, she said, but it is unfair both to the student and the school system to lump their scores on English-language achievement tests with those of the rest of the student population.
Orr agreed the testing policy and its application to school accountability measures should be changed, but until it is he worries about the damage caused to the school system and city if high numbers of unaccompanied minors are enrolled.
"Give them time, for crying out loud, before you roll it into the district scores," he said.
ELL students are tested on English proficiency when they first enroll, Underwood said, and annually after that. The maximum score is a 6.0, but they are graduated from the ELL program when they score a 4.8. Most research, she said, indicates it takes five to seven years before a non-English-speaking child can be expected to have full proficiency in the language.
While Underwood said the primary language of most ELL students at DCS is Spanish, there are also students from China, Japan and Yemen.
“We also have a pretty significant indigenous group, like from Guatemala, that really don’t speak Spanish. They have a dialect they speak that’s not even written,” she said, yet they, too, are expected to take a written English-language test after one year.
“I really want people to know that we take the children who walk through our door. We love them and we teach them and I totally, firmly believe we provide the best education for the student,” Underwood said. “If you’re ELL, you’ve got the best education. If you’re special ed, the best education. If you need a 35 on the ACT, we’ll help you get it. But when you lump everything together in those report cards, it doesn’t paint an accurate picture of what’s going on.”
Part of what frustrates Underwood about a state report card system that effectively penalizes a school district based on the percentage of ELL students enrolled is that she says it creates the appearance that a positive is in fact a negative.
“I don’t think we can say these students hurt our district,” she said. “My children went here and all of my children are benefiting from the diversity this system offers, because it is international. We are an international, global society, so they’ve been able to go out and work with lots of different people. I really see our diversity as a strength.”