There is no doubt that schools are a major concern when families decide where they will live, and a Decatur lawmaker believes the way the state handles standardized testing puts Decatur at a disadvantage.
In a letter to the head of Catholic Social Services, state Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said an influx of refugee children is hurting Decatur’s image by lowering the city school system’s overall test scores.
“As you know, these children cannot comprehend, read or write in English,” Orr wrote, and “... 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.”
Orr argues that this places Decatur at a disadvantage relative to surrounding communities when trying to attract families with school-age children.
Orr believes English Language Learners should not be included in overall school system test scores until they have achieved some level of 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.”
Even before the influx of refugees, this was a concern. Immigrant populations don’t settle uniformly across the state. They go where the jobs are. That has traditionally meant, for example, that cities with chicken processing plants have attracted disproportionately large numbers of immigrants from Mexico and Central America, whose children may speak little or no English at first.
We agree that expecting English Language Learners to take the same standardized tests as proficient English speakers creates an inaccurate picture.
At some point, all students need to be counted in the test scores, and ELL students need to be tested in some way to make sure we know the efficacy of ELL programs, but it is unfair both to the schools and the students to expect English Language Learners to take reading, math, history, science and other tests in English when they are still learning the language.
Unfortunately, those mandates come down in part from the federal government.
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 United States should be welcome refugees. Indeed, with the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, it should be accepting more of them. Thousands of Afghans who helped the U.S. effort there and their families now face life and possibly death under a Taliban-led government.
But we well know accepting refugees is a fraught political issue, and it should not be made worse by policies that increase resentment toward refugee populations, especially children.
If federal testing requirements are the real problem, then the federal government should address the issue. Communities should welcome refugees, and they shouldn’t be penalized for doing so.