LARGO — Students learning English as a second language will have two years to master their skills before their test scores count in school accountability measures.
Pinellas County School Board members are expected today to schedule a public hearing to discuss changes to their policies for English Language Learners. The changes reflect new state legislation that gives an additional year before these students’ standardized test scores count toward school grades and teacher evaluations, instead of the one year that has been the Florida Department of Education’s policy.
However, all ELL students, regardless of how long they have been learning the language, will be counted in the state’s learning gains measurements.
“This is going to be a very positive thing,” school board member Linda Lerner said. “Language is one issue, but the other is that some students have had a very sporadic education and some may be in seventh grade and they’ve only gone to school two years on a regular basis.”
Those students have to take the same standardized tests as other students, said Natasa Karac, a English for Speakers of Other Languages specialist, a requirement that’s “very challenging.”
Under state law, ELL students have to take the standardized reading tests unless they have been in the country less than one year and a majority of the student’s ELL committee determines an exemption is appropriate. However, even exempt ELL students have to take the state’s Comprehensive English Language Learning Assessment, and the writing, math and science standardized tests, no matter how long they have received ELL instruction, said Cheryl Etters, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education.
There are few students in the district who haven’t received a consistent education in some language, Karac said. However, the more than 6,000 Pinellas students in the English for Speakers of Other Languages program speak more than 90 different languages. A study by the University of South Florida in 2002 found that most of the Mexican students in Pinellas, particularly Clearwater, come from the Mexican state of Hidalgo and speak an indigenous language. Spanish is not their first language, and many scored higher on English proficiency tests than on Spanish.
Those scores, however, still are low, Karac said. A majority of those Hidalguenses students, about 85 percent, were born in the United States, as were 81 percent of all ELL students in the school district, she said.
In the past 10 years, the number of ELL students in Pinellas has increased by about 10 percent a year, and by more than 25 percent during the past five years, Karac said. About 63 percent of those students are native Spanish speakers.