Green Park principal challenges fairness of state's standards exam

Mike Lambert believes the state standards exam discriminates against students in bilingual programs.

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Mike Lambert does an impromptu demonstration of abilities with four of his students at Green Park. The students read a section from a book written in Spanish and then respond easily and accurately to questions from what they've just read.

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Green Park Principal Mike Lambert poses in the school library with four of his students (left to right, front) Andres Cerda, Iris Hernandez, (left to right, back)Elian Duran, Lesly Rodriguez. All four students are excellent readers in Spanish but have had to take standardized testing in English. In his bilingual school, children learn Spanish first and Lambert feels the testing is unfair and unethical for the non-English speaking kids who are competent with the material yet handicapped by the non-language friendly testing.

WALLA WALLA - From a stack of documents he has compiled, Mike Lambert pulls a sample of the state's standards exam.

The sample test is one he recently offered to education officials, as Lambert made his case about the state exam being discriminatory.

The adults who were there to hear Lambert speak had a tough time with the exam. Lambert had it drafted in Russian.

To Lambert, principal of Green Park Elementary, the Russian exam is one of the best examples of what many bilingual students - or, English language learners - must overcome as they are tested for mastery in reading, writing, math and science.

In a complex system of assessments, state exams, high stakes and even federal sanctions against low-achieving schools, Lambert has drawn some clarity, and a cause to defend. He believes the state standards exam discriminates against students in bilingual programs, or those English language learners who by classification are not proficient yet in English.

Many such students can demonstrate skills in reading, writing and math - but in their native language. Locally, the most common foreign language, and the one taught in schools, is Spanish. At Green Park, Lambert oversees a transitional bilingual program. That means students who primarily speak Spanish at home learn in Spanish from kindergarten through third grade. Throughout the school in all grades, there are about 125 children who are English language learners.

Because the state standards exam is given in English, Lambert believes those students are being set up to fail. He believes the same holds true for students with disabilities, who also must take and pass the state standards exam.

Up until the 2008-09 school year, Washington state students took the Washington Assessment of Student Learning exam. The test gauged students mastery of reading, writing, math and science, and was introduced in 1997 as a pilot for fourth-grade students. In the following years, seventh and 10th grades were included.

In 2005, the introduction of the federal No Child Left Behind law raised the stakes of standards tests throughout the country. The law, signed by George W. Bush, calls for all students to meet standards in reading and math by 2014.

By 2007, more students in Washington state were taking the WASL. In time, third, fifth, sixth, and eighth grades were included to meet NCLB guidelines.

Around the time more students were being tested, Green Park scores and recognition started to drop.

"They did not do well," Lambert said about his students.

The school hasn't met its standards goals for the last two years, which has put the school in step 2 of federal improvement under a program called Adequate Yearly Progress. Through the system, a school is classified into various groups. Low-income students, English language learners, and students with disabilities make up some of the groupings. If none of the groups meet standards, the school fails.

As a result, Green Park, a Title I school, had to cut 20 percent of its funding to cover the cost of after-school tutoring through a private company. Lambert lost half an English-as-a-second-language position, and two bilingual teachers' assistants, for about $48,000. Although meant to support students who need extra help meeting standards, Lambert feels the move may have done more harm by cutting key staff positions.

Schools that continue to miss standards goals face tough sanctions, including shutting the school down, replacing the principal and staff, or transforming its basic structure and model of education. Ironically, the lowest-performing schools qualify to seek millions in federal funding to transform.

Despite the controversies of NCLB, Lambert sees the federal law on his side. The law permits states to test English language learners in their native languages, although few states do.

"There isn't a single mandated language for a reason," Lambert said.

Lambert has been in touch with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, first criticizing the WASL, and now dissatisfied with the Measurements of Student Progress exam, the new name given to the state exam under Superintendent Randy Dorn. Students through eighth grade took the MSP for the first time this past school year.

"They changed the name," Lambert said about the new test, which has also been shortened and will eventually be taken online.

"If we assess something, it needs to be what we intend to assess," he continues. "In the WASL, it's intended to assess reading and math, science and writing content skills."

It is not, Lambert argues, meant to test English proficiency. So how does the state measure how well a bilingual student is doing in English? Through a different exam.

That test, the Washington Language Proficiency Test, is given to children who primarily speak another language at home. Once a student passes the exam, he or she is no longer considered an English language learner, and would leave a bilingual program.

If bilingual students pass the state standards exams, they are still considered English language learners until they pass the language proficiency test. Another example, Lambert says, of why the old WASL and new MSP should not be mistaken for a test of English skills.

With the switch to the MSP, the state education agency did begin offering translations for some parts of the test. Students who are still mastering English were offered audio translations of the math and science portions. So students could listen to questions off a CD, while looking at the exam. But Lambert said looking at and completing an exam in English, while listening to it another language, is a challenge in itself.

"It is not equal," he said.

Lambert's goal is to file a federal discrimination lawsuit against the state education agency if more changes aren't made. He has already filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights in Seattle. Although the complaint was dismissed, Lambert is not giving up.

Bilingual education is not without its share of controversy. California outlawed bilingual programs in the 1990s, but does support programs where English is taught equally with another language.

In Washington, bilingual education and programs like the one in Green Park have support, although locally Green Park is standing alone.

At one time, three area elementary schools - Blue Ridge, Prospect Point and Green Park - taught the transitional bilingual program, while Sharpstein teaches English language learners through a dual-language model. Through that model, Spanish speakers learn English and Spanish at the same time beside English speaking students.

Edison Elementary joined Sharpstein as a dual-language school last year, and Prospect Point Elementary lost its bilingual program with boundary revisions.

In the fall, Blue Ridge Elementary will start phasing out its transitional bilingual program for a dual-language model. That leaves Green Park as the last school in the district teaching through the transitional model.

Lambert says he has no immediate plans to make a similar switch. He sees his students benefiting from the transitional model, where Spanish is taught almost exclusively through third grade.

"I think dual-language is a great program," he said. "But I don't believe that one program meets the needs of all students."

What Lambert wants is to see OSPI start to offer drafts of the exam in Spanish - much like the Russian version he devised - or else throw out the results of English language learners. Doing so could have a positive impact on overall school ratings, but also send a positive message to the children taking the exams.

"I want them to have that equal opportunity," he said.

Most children go on to test well in English, as early as fourth grade and for some even in third grade. Lambert pointed out his third-graders as a whole met standards in reading in 2009.

But for those who don't pass the state assessment because of the language challenge, the message is mixed.

"They're being told, by an authoritative figure, that they can't read," he said. Yet they are children who can read well, but in a different language.

The state does offer some translated documents. The letters sent home to families telling children they didn't meet standards are written in Spanish.

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