Education

Jefferson County Public Schools administrators are asking the Kentucky Board of Education to give schools some leeway on test scores from students learning English.

Jefferson County—compared to other districts in the state—has a fairly high number of refugee and immigrant students.

The Newcomer Academy in Louisville’s Shawnee Neighborhood, for example, has more than 430 students learning English as a second language, and almost a quarter of the students enrolled at Iroquois High School are ESL students, too.

Newcomer Principal Gwen Snow said she’s getting new students all the time.

“I’ve been here since 2008. We had 250 students at the end of the year … and now we have over 500,” she said.

At Newcomer, many of these students and their families are escaping war-torn countries or extreme poverty—sometimes both. However, within two years or less, these students and their schools are being judged on their performance through a statewide standardized test known as K-PREP.

Snow said “that’s really asking a lot of” these students. She said the test requires a pretty substantial grasp of the English language.

“To get into the depth of that knowledge that you really need to find out, you have to have some language capacity to show that,” Snow said. “If you want to have an open-ended, some high-level thinking, you have to be able to be proficient in whatever language it’s being asked of.”

Snow said two years is simply not cutting it. Not only does it usually take at least five years to acquire the language skills the test demands, but these students are also dealing with many other issues that require time.

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For one, Snow said many students at Newcomer are dealing with trauma—whether it’s from whatever drove their families out of their native country or simply adjusting to a new life in a foreign country.

Also, base education levels are different across the board. Some students coming into Newcomer have interrupted educations—other students are going to school for the time in their lives.

That’s why Robert Rodosky and otherJefferson County Public Schools administrators want the state to give these students and their schools a waiver for the state test.

Rodosky said K-PREP scores are how the state judges how well students are learning and how well their teachers are doing their jobs. However, he said in these cases, the test is a bad indicator.

“What happens is it becomes a source of frustration for the people that are working at those schools,” he said. “But, it also causes the school people to not have a real focus on what those students really need.”

Rodosky said this system forces teachers to focus their attention on how well the students test—as opposed to how well they are actually learning English.

“We are asking for a system in which: ‘Let the school concentrate on giving these students English acquisition skills before the high stakes test count and the school level in terms of accountability,’” Rodosky said.

If the state approves a waiver for Jefferson County, ESL students will have to score a 4.0 on the test of their language acquisition before the state exam scores count for the school. The K-PREP scores, however, will always be applied to the district.

The waiver would be a way to improve and protect the relationship between these new families in the community and the public school system, which Snow said is already a good one.

Much of that has to do with the fact that these families see an education as an integral part of making a better life in the U.S.

The students see it that way, too. Ayanle Ahmed moved to Louisville from Somalia two years ago. When asked what his favorite subject in school is, he says it’s English. Ahmed, 16, said he sees it as a way to getting a good job in the future.

John Koehlinger, executive director at Kentucky Refugee Ministries—an organization that works with many of these families—said that’s what he hopes the community associates with students like Ahmed.

“It would be most unfortunate if the school system came to see these same families and their children as liabilities in any way,” he said.

“I understand the realities of educational testing and accountability, but if we could just encompass the reality of these families, I think it would be to everyone’s benefit.”

The Kentucky Board of Education is expected to take a vote on the county’s waiver in June.