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Bill: ELL students given more time before impacting schools’ grades

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

A bill approved in the Alabama Senate would take new non-English speaking students’ test scores out of a performance marker used to assign letter grades to public schools.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said schools with high numbers of English language learners, or ELLs, are unfairly hurt by the annual grading system used to compare schools and communities.

The Legislature in 2012 approved a law requiring A through F grade assignment for each school. The grades,  based on several indicators including student performance, are meant to give the public an easy way to compare schools.

If Orr’s Senate Bill 170 becomes law, starting next school year the academic achievement of students who are identified as English language learners “may not be considered in assigning an academic achievement grade to a school or school system for the first three years of enrollment of the student.”

In the last report card, statewide about 4.6% of the school population were “students with limited English proficiency.”

At Decatur City Schools, it was 15%.

“Fifteen percent of my population takes a test in a language they don’t know,” DCS Superintendent Michael Douglas said.

“… Our job is to teach all children and we’re not going to skirt that responsibility,” Douglas said. “But it takes time to teach them the English language.” 

Senate Bill 170 is similar to a bill Russellville City Schools Superintendent Heath Grimes said he worked on a few years ago with Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville. 

He called it a “game changer” for his system with a growing population of non-English speakers. The last report card showed 26% of students were English learners and Grimes said that number is growing.

Grimes said in his system, teachers take the school grade designations seriously and personally.

“They work so hard, but (we’re getting lower grades than some other schools) for no other reason than we have 28% and they may have 0,” Grimes said.

He said his system has embraced diversity and welcomed new populations, but an entire school or system shouldn’t be judged on their English abilities.

“It negatively impacts teacher morale, it negatively impacts the community,” Grimes said. “No one wants to be in a fight they can’t win.”

Meanwhile, ELL students will still be represented in other metrics of the report, including graduation rates and attendance. Orr’s bill only removes their individual test performances. 

Orr and other state leaders for several years have voiced concern about the number of unaccompanied minors who arrive at the nation’s southern border and are sent in significant numbers to specific parts of Alabama, including Morgan, Franklin and Marshall counties.

The bill passed the Senate 31-0 on Thursday. Senate co-sponsors included Scofield, Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, Sen. Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro, and Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre.  

Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, spoke in support of it on the Senate floor.

“I have several schools (in my district) that have heavy concentrations of (ELL students,)” he said.

The bill now goes to the House.


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