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The Associated Press

Hispanic Students Must Learn English Quickly To Pass FCAT


March 19, 2005
Copyright © 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) - The clock began ticking for 16-year-old Leyna Rosa Ibanos when she arrived from Puerto Rico seven years ago knowing hardly any English.

She had only a few years to learn enough of the language before her sophomore year when she would take the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test, the statewide standardized test that every student must pass before graduating.

Even though she gets As and Bs in her classes, she has struggled so far with the FCAT, passing the math part but twice failing the reading section. She plans to take the reading section, for a third time, this month.

"I'm very worried because I want to pass it now because in 12th grade I want to think about college," says Ibanos, a junior at Poinciana High School who in an interview is more comfortable speaking Spanish than English.

Thousands of non-English-speaking students who arrive in Florida's schools each year find themselves in the same boat. They may do well enough to pass their classes with help from English proficiency programs but then fail the mandatory high-stakes testing that has been a centerpiece of Gov. Jeb Bush's educational changes.

The test is administered in grades 4, 8, and 10 but passing the 10th grade test is required to get a diploma. Students have six chances to take the test and they can come back for another year if they fail it in their senior year.

Repeated failure can delay going to a university and fulfilling the dreams of success that motivated many families to move to the United States in the first place. Last year, nearly 14,000 high school seniors didn't pass the critical exam; of that number, roughly a third were classified as students with limited English proficiency.

"In my opinion, I don't think it's fair that we have to take the test," says Zuleima Narvaez, a 14-year-old freshman at Poinicana High who moved from Puerto Rico four years ago and is still in an English-as-a-Second-Language program. "Many students arrive in 12th grade, and if they don't pass, it doesn't take into account the efforts they have made and then they can't graduate."

The problems facing these students motivated state Rep. John Quinones to introduce a bill this legislative session that would require Florida's Department of Education to study whether there are standardized tests in other languages that could be used in place of the FCAT. The alternative tests would be eligible for students who have been enrolled in ESL programs for less than three years and who have failed to pass the grade 10 FCAT test by their senior year.

"Assimilating in a new language, like anything, takes time," says Quinones, whose Kissimmee district has become a haven for Puerto Rican immigrants seeking jobs in the booming economy of nearby Orlando. The area is now 45 percent Hispanic.

"If you come here in 11th grade, for instance, it may be more difficult to pass the FCAT, because of the language difficulty, by the 12th grade," Quinones says.

But the Florida Department of Education won't support Quinones' bill since a firm grasp of English is one of the standards for earning a high school diploma.

"We have been hesitant to go down the road of other languages since our state's standards require proficiency in English," says Education Commissioner John Winn. "There is also the practical issue of how many languages do you support?"

For most students, it takes four to seven years to learn English sufficiently to take an academic test like the FCAT. Many students have to take the test after being in Florida for only two years, says Dalia Medina, coordinator for the multicultural department in Osceola County, where Poinciana High School is located.

"Unfortunately, we only offer the test in English. It doesn't matter if they've only been here less than two years," Medina says. "They still need to pass it in English to get a standard diploma. Many parents are not happy about it, not at all."

There are few places in Florida where the struggle is more pronounced than in the Osceola County School District, where more than a quarter of the district's 50,000 students are in ESL programs. A large percentage of the ESL students have come from Puerto Rico where they were taught in Spanish and had limited exposure to English in public schools.

The district offers programs for students who perform poorly on the FCAT in earlier grades. Students also get FCAT training in ESL and regular classes.

Many non-English-speaking parents also are hindered in their ability to help their children study for the FCATs, the way English-speaking parents can.

"Personally, I have very good knowledge of grammar in my own language but I don't have it in English," says Gloria Mejia, who moved to Osceola County from Colombia five years ago with her daughter and son. "Any help I can give my son would only cause him confusion."

Ibanos, who wears a sly smile when she talks, says that during the two previous times she took the FCAT, her mind wandered as one English paragraph dragged on after the other. She planned to concentrate harder the next time she took the test.

"I want to pass it," she says. "I'm positive that I will do the best that I can."

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