Language a barrier for students on ISAT

  • By Paul D. Bowker
  • Education reporter
  • February 15, 2008 @ 11:51 PM

Jorge Penaloza has seen the trouble in his daughter's eyes.

The Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) will be administered to all Chicago Public Schools students beginning March 3, and Penaloza's daughter, a 5th grader, is among the 24,000 students in Chicago still learning English who must now take that test. It's in English.

"She's very afraid of taking that test coming up in two weeks," Penaloza said through a translator today at Nixon Elementary, a mostly Hispanic school on the city's Northwest side.

Penaloza's story is just one reason why CPS officials want to delay the testing in schools where the English language is not spoken fluently. The district wants to change the tests so that versions in other languages are available. It's offering to pay $120,000 for the conversion.

The Illinois Board of Education has not approved the different tests or a delay, although CPS officials say the board is listening. The board will meet Feb. 20 in Springfield.

"We don't want to put children in a position where they are condemned to failure," says CPS chief Arne Duncan.

"I'm very frustrated," says Penaloza, who does not speak English and has two children attending Nixon Elementary.

In previous years, students classified as limited in English proficiency were administered the Illinois Measure of Annual Growth in English (IMAGE). More than 60,000 students in Illinois took the IMAGE last year.

But in October 2007, Illinois school districts were informed that IMAGE does not meet requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, meaning all grade 3-8 students would take the same reading, writing, math and science ISAT tests, regardless of language proficiency.

Today, parents, educators and politicians came together at Nixon Elementary, 2121 N. Keeler Ave., to send a message to the Illinois Board of Education. Of Nixon's 1,060 students, 95 percent are reported to come from Hispanic families and 41 percent are classified as limited English proficient.

Nixon Principal Herman Escobar says some have arrived as recently as three weeks ago from places such as Mexico and Puerto Rico.

"The kids are caught in the middle," Escobar says.

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley says the city is looking for a common-sense solution.

"I don't want any child coming home and saying, 'Mom and dad, I flunked the exam,'" Daley says. "We're not going to put them through an ordeal to embarrass them."

ISAT testing for students in grades 3-8 will be held March 3 through 8. Prairie State Achievement Examinations (PSAE) for high school students will begin April 23 for 11th graders and Oct. 25 for 12th graders.

The issue gained prominence earlier this week when the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, a group of parents, held a news conference of its own to complain about the ISAT.

Escobar is fearful that a multitude of bad ISAT scores next month will lump Nixon in with underperforming schools. As a part of the state report card, schools are defined as making satisfactory academic progress, or not. In 2006-07, 62.4 percent of Nixon students met or exceeded the state standard, just under the CPS average of 63.9 percent. In IMAGE testing, 56 percent of Nixon's students met the
standard.

Daley and others blame the federal government for putting pressure on state education boards to force the standardized tests with little funding to actually help children.

"We are being asked to do something that is really a federal mess," says State Sen. (2nd District) William Delgado, repeating the message in Spanish.

One parent in the crowd of about 400 held a sign that read:

I came
I saw
ISAT … and sat
And couldn't read it

Paul Bowker, a Chicago-area journalist with 25 years of experience, covers Chicago Public Schools for the Daily News.

Discuss

THEMAN, 02-18-2008

Interesting

MARY U., 03-04-2008

This is America People! Please learn to speak English. I cannot believe that in this day we are catering to citizens that cannot speak English. My children go to a Chicago Public School where they were forced to take a Spanish Class in first grade.

GEOFF DOUGHERTY (THE EDITOR), 03-05-2008

Mary,

It certainly seems like life would be easier if everyone spoke the same language. However, you have to wonder about testing newly arrived immigrants in a language they don't understand and haven't been taught. What's the point?