Language Test

By Naomi Dillon

Coachella Valley Unified School District couldn't be farther from Coachella Valley, even though it's right next door. The valley is home to acres of golf courses, high-end retail centers, and luxury resorts like Palm Springs. The school district encompasses an area of mostly arid and dusty land, where the median family income hovers around $30,000.

Many families can scarcely afford to hover, instead migrating in and out of the district as they follow the crops. Education -- the key to escaping the cycle of poverty -- is valued, but it's secondary to survival.

The daily reality for these migrant families is felt within the Coachella school district, which is caught between state and federal accountability measures as it tries to educate a growing population of students whose native language is not English. Making ends meet academically has become an increasingly improbable task for Coachella, where 70 percent of the students are classified as English Language Learners or ELL.

Under California law, all ELL students must take state tests in English after only one year of instruction -- a requirement that perpetually leaves districts like Coachella "in need of improvement." Under NCLB, districts can omit scores of ELL students for three years and even up to an additional two years after that, while the students learn English.

"The language in No Child Left Behind is pretty clear: There need to be accommodations that yield valid and reliable results," says Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, president of Californians Together, a consortium of 16 statewide organizations seeking an equal and high-quality education for ELL students. "We don't have that here. We assess in English. It's the same test for everyone."

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