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March 30th, 2011
Grijalva Thanks Education, Justice Departments for Making Necessary Improvements to English Language Learner Survey in Arizona

Washington, D.C.– Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva today thanked the Department of Education and the Department of Justice for negotiating with Arizona officials to reform the state’s English Language Learner (ELL) survey to more accurately assess the educational needs of the student population. The change, which will return the state to administering a three-question home language survey (HLS) of select Arizona families from the current one-question survey, comes after a federal investigation found the one-question survey violated multiple federal laws.

“Politicizing our students’ education just set our state back and cost us valuable time that should have been spent educating,” Grijalva said. “If we want our children to have good lives, successful careers and a functioning state in the future, we have to stop using them as political ping pong balls. I want to extend my sincere thanks to both Departments for pursuing this so diligently and for brokering an appropriate solution that puts us back on the right track.”

With the cooperation of the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) and Arizona school districts, both Departments conducted an extensive investigation of the state’s policies and practices for identifying ELL students. Prior to July 1, 2009, ADE used a three-question survey that asked:

  • “What is the primary language used in the home regardless of the language spoken by the student?”
  • “What is the language most often spoken by the student?” and
  • “What is the language that the student first acquired?”

Since July 1, 2009, due to changes made by then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, ADE has allowed only a one-question HLS that asks, “What is the primary language of the student?” If a student answered English to this one question, ADE prohibited school districts from assessing the student’s English language proficiency unless a teacher documented specific language problems on a form prescribed by ADE, and met with the parents in person to obtain their permission to assess the student.

In the 2009-10 school year, ADE reported almost 100,000 ELL students, which reflected a decline of approximately 33,000 students from the prior school year. School districts attributed at least part of this decrease to the one-question HLS.

The federal investigation determined that the one-question HLS failed to identify and serve eligible ELL students in violation of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The investigation further revealed that the teacher referral process for the one-question HLS unnecessarily delayed the identification of ELL students, and therefore delayed ELL services, in violation of both laws.

The settlement agreement will better ensure that ELL students who attend Arizona public schools will be identified and served in a timely manner. ADE’s new practice will be to assess a student’s English proficiency if that student answers anything other than “English” to any of the three questions on the survey.

In order to capture potential ELLs who are now registering for the 2011-2012 school year, ADE will send a directive to each of its local educational agencies in approximately one week informing them of the reinstated three-question HLS, and explaining how to identify potential ELL students among those students whose parents already completed the one-question HLS. ADE will also train the local education agencies regarding these changes and monitor them over the next school year to ensure that they are appropriately administering the three-question HLS.

“I applaud the work both Departments put into this effort to make sure students who face sometimes severe barriers to educational success can get the help they need when it benefits them most,” Grijalva said. “I hope our schools are kept out of the political realm from now on, and I will work closely with federal and state officials to make sure the spirit of cooperation we see in this agreement continues for the benefit of our students in the future.”

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