San Francisco Examiner

Wednesday, March 18, 1998

S.F. Defies State on Test
School district won't give standardized exam to non-English speakers, risks $11.4 million in aid.
By JULIAN GUTHRIE of the Examiner Staff

Choosing the "laws of morality" over the law of the state, San Francisco's Board of Education has made The City the only urban district in California to refuse to administer a standardized test in English to students who lack English skills.

The bold and defiant decision, pushed by schools chief Bill Rojas and approved by the board Tuesday, places the district in direct violation of Gov. Wilson's English-only testing program. The unanimous vote was made despite threats by the state Board of Education that the district risks losing millions of dollars in funding by refusing to administer the exam.

"They can threaten all they want, but they have no legal basis to withhold funding," Superintendent Rojas said. "Besides, there are laws of the state, and there are laws of morality. I would hope Gov. Wilson is also interested in laws of morality."

Although school chiefs from eight districts representing more than 1 million students said in February they were opposed to an English-only statewide test, every district but San Francisco eventually acquiesced to Wilson's mandate - and heeded the state Board of Education's threats.

Rojas, however, maintains that giving a test in English to children who don't speak the language violates civil rights laws and will yield invalid results, damage students' academic self-confidence and waste teacher time and taxpayer dollars.

Statewide, one in four children lacks the basic English skills necessary to attend mainstream classes. In most districts, these students are either exempted from testing or evaluated in their primary language - if such an exam exists.

Wilson fought hard to get the testing bill passed by the Legislature last fall. It requires that all students in second through 11th grades be tested in English, beginning this month. For students who have attended California schools for less than a year, districts must also - if possible - administer a test in the student's primary language.

$11 million at stake
Rojas says San Francisco students who lack English skills will not be tested in English unless they've had more than 30 months of instruction in English or the parent or teacher requests that the child take the test.

Because of the decision, San Francisco schools face losing more than $11 million in state funding, the state Board of Education said.

"San Francisco, the only large district in the state not to comply with the law, will face serious repercussions," said Bill Lucia, the state board's executive director. "We are not pleased to hear this, and we take it very seriously."

He said the board would immediately urge state Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin to consider withholding from the district $11.4 million that goes to items such as school site upgrades and low-income student support.

Eastin's office, however, said negotiations and discussions with San Francisco school officials would occur before sanctions were imposed.

"We want all kids to take the test, but we aren't interested in threatening the district by telling them what they're not going to receive," said Doug Stone, Eastin's spokesman.

Lucia was not so diplomatic. "If the district doesn't administer the test, they lose funding," he said. "What's sad here is that people living in San Francisco will look up test scores on the Internet, and they'll see how kids from every other Bay Area city are doing, but they won't know how San Francisco students are doing."

Test scores must be sent to the state by June 30 and will then be posted on the Internet. Scores will be listed by county, school district, school and grade level. Test scores of children who speak little, if any, English will be lumped together with scores of students who are fluent in English.

'Baseline indicator'
"Certainly, there will be districts where limited-English students don't test well, but at least parents will have a baseline indicator that will be comparable year to year," said Dan Edwards, of Wilson's education office.

Edwards said he hoped there would be "public outcry of enormous measure" over the decision to defy the law.

"This is a district led by a superintendent who says he's for accountability, but he's going to every extreme to avoid accountability," Edwards said. "Rojas is saying, "We'll pick provisions of California laws that we like, and those we don't we just won't follow.' "

Rojas said he found himself alone in his battle with the state because of his understanding of the principles of fair testing. "I have been in a strong testing environment all my life, and I know what damage it will do to kids who get low test scores simply because they don't speak English."

He is sanguine and hopeful that Wilson's testing law will be amended to exempt non-English speakers. "We're working to get the law modified," he said.

Migden bill backs Rojas vision
Assemblywoman Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, has introduced a bill in line with Rojas' vision. It would preclude non-English-speaking students from being tested in English until they'd been in school for more than 30 months, and would require that scores be separated by such qualities as language proficiency and years enrolled in California public schools.

"We think we can get the state board to modify their directives, and we will make sure San Francisco isn't penalized," Migden said Tuesday. "My fundamental belief is that it's unfair to test non-English-speaking students in a language they don't understand. It doesn't test how much a student knows in math. It tests how much English a student knows. Besides being fruitless, it's a waste of millions of dollars."

Through several "spirited discussions" with the governor, Migden said, she believes Wilson has begun to "modify his previous hard line" on testing all children.

"We believe the governor is increasingly receptive to my bill," Migden said. "I'm not saying absolutely, but it appears that he is rethinking his position."

News of an "increasingly receptive" governor took Wilson aide Edwards by surprise. "I'm not aware of the governor having any "spirited discussions' with Migden on this subject," Edwards said.

"This is not a brokerable position," he added. "We are seriously committed to seeing this implemented according to the provisions of the law. And we are tired of educators . . . thumbing their noses at a law that was passed by the state of California."