CARTHAGE, Mo — The Carthage School District, administrators insist, is unique in one regard.

With 25 percent of its students classified as English-language learners, and a rising student population driven by a steady flow of Spanish-speaking immigrants, the district is hard-pressed to contend with a basic fact about the Missouri education system: All state tests required for graduation are in English.

This week, Jana Sawyer, district coordinator of the English-language learners program, gave the Carthage Board of Education a snapshot of how the district is faring with those students.

Last year, the graduation rate for ELL students was 69 percent, compared with 90 percent of students who graduated overall. Those numbers have gotten worse in recent years, reflecting the continuing arrival of immigrants from Central and South America, Sawyer said. At the high school alone, 13 members of the senior class recently arrived in the country, some with few English skills, little classroom experience and no educational records.

Carthage administrators and parents say the district is doing its best with a challenging situation, training teachers to tailor their lessons to English learners and building one of the few dual-language programs in the state. And even students who don't graduate on time are making progress in English and other subjects, Sawyer told the board recently.

That year-over-year improvement is another good sign the district is making headway with ELL students, she advised school officials.

But for the coming years, changes to another state test will make such improvement difficult to measure. What's more, test scores will appear to decline.

Many districts use ACCESS, an exam designed specifically for ELL students, to determine whether to move students from the ELL program to mainstream courses without extra language support. The state uses ACCESS, which is being administered this week in Carthage, to evaluate districts on the growth of their ELL students.

Recent changes to the test mean the next round of results won't be pretty, but Ryan Rumpf, director of the English-language development curriculum for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, warned districts against drawing conclusions about the expected drop in ACCESS scores.

After all, the new test is harder. A student who previously earned a score of 6 will now earn a 5 for the same work, he said by way of example; scores have dropped in most districts that administered the test so far.

“The problem with the evaluation coming this year is that they only have one year of data on the new scale,” Rumpf said, adding that measuring growth year over year will be impossible until the test has been administered for several years in a row.

As a new federal education law goes into effect, forcing districts to tweak their testing regimens, policymakers concluded that ACCESS scores were being used by schools nationwide to release students from ELL programs before some of those students were prepared. The decision to change the test was made by WIDA, a nonprofit that develops ELL tests for more than 30 states.

Instruction is expensive, and keeping students too long in the program can leave them feeling isolated. But releasing them from the program before they have developed sufficient language skills can set them up for failure in mainstream courses.

“Remove them from the program too early, and the data shows that they’re more likely to drop out. It’s a fine line,” Rumpf said.

The new, more difficult test will keep more students in specialized language classes. Rumpf has estimated that the number of students exiting ELL programs in the state could drop to 5 percent as a result of the change, a decrease of 10 percentage points.

The drop has been even greater in Carthage, which is already using the new test to determine which students will move to the mainstream curriculum. This year, the number of students exiting the ELL program dropped by more than 70 percent from the previous year, from 182 students to 42 students, Sawyer said.

She said the district is taking further steps to ensure that the growing population of ELL students are learning both English and academic subjects such as math. Math teachers, for instance, are trained to prompt students with “sentence starters” and place visual vocabulary charts in their classrooms.

“We have to make the curriculum and courses more accessible while they’re learning English,” she said.

Aliesha Ordonez, a parent at Columbian Elementary, says her son benefited from ELL programs, though he hardly seemed to notice.

“What’s that?” said Damian Ordonez, a fourth-grader, when asked about his special English classes.

Damian was among a handful of students recently chosen by his peers to present his accomplishments in reading to board members. He was removed from the ELL program last year, his mother said.

“They’ve done a wonderful job,” Aliesha Ordonez added.

Tony Diggs, school board president, praised the work of Sawyer and her colleagues.

“The Carthage School District is unique,” Diggs said of its high number of English-language learners, virtually all of whom are Hispanic.

He noted their parents are often extra-involved in their children’s education.

“We find that Hispanic parents are far more involved,” he said. “They’re a very, very good group of people to have in our schools.”

"Forty years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States determined that in order for public schools to comply with their legal obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI), they must take affirmative steps to ensure that students with limited English proficiency (LEP) can meaningfully participate in their educational programs and services. That same year, Congress enacted the Equal Educational Opportunities Act (EEOA), which confirmed that public schools and state educational agencies must act to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by students in their instructional programs."

— Statement from U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, in 2015

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