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Parents upset after Spanish test nixed

A fifth-grade testing controversy has some Lexington parents questioning the Fayette County Public Schools' Spanish Immersion Program.

Complaints center on a Spanish-proficiency test given last spring to fifth-graders in the Spanish Immersion Program at Maxwell Elementary School. The test was developed by the Fayette school system in-house because no commercially produced assessment was then available.

But parents — who waited over the summer for test results — say they were shocked when district officials announced last week that they have ruled the "homemade" test invalid because of problems with how it was written and graded, and that no results can be released.

"It's really disappointing," said Chris Pool, whose daughter took the test. "At this point, we don't understand why the test is invalid or what is invalid about it."

The flap apparently also is exacerbating concerns that prompted some parents last year to form an independent organization called Sipport to push for more rigor in the Spanish Immersion Program.

Sipport member Chris Gullo says the group came together in large part because of a perception that the focus on Spanish was slipping as schools put more stress on CATS testing and other core-content assessments.

"If all this effort has produced a test that has to be wadded up and thrown out, it just screams for leadership in the immersion program as a whole," Gullo declared.

Sarah Taylor, who has had three children in the Spanish program, said parents were awaiting the fifth-grade test results with the expectation that they might support their belief that program quality has declined in recent years.

"There's been a dramatic change in the curriculum that's being taught," she said.

Fayette Schools Superintendent Stu Silberman countered that Maxwell Elementary and the immersion program remain highly popular with "a waiting list of hundreds of families who want to get in."

"Although I understand the frustration of the parents ... I have heard from just as many, if not more parents, who are utterly thrilled with the school," he said.

Silberman noted that a committee, with parent representation, chose to use a homemade test for fifth-graders "rather than waiting on a commercial test to be available."

"No matter what the results would have been ... there would have been no way to see if it was up or down because this was the first time an assessment had been given," he said.

District officials said parents in the Spanish program had been requesting tests for some time to show how their children were progressing. So last spring, language students were tested for the first time.

According to Michelle Reynolds, the district's new assessment coordinator, commercially available tests were administered to students in kindergarten, third grade, eighth grade and high school.

The district had no such Spanish test for fifth-graders, Reynolds said. (There is such a test, the NOELLA, but it wasn't available last year.)

To fill the gap, the school district formed a committee — including a parent with expertise in Spanish-language assessment — to develop an in-house Spanish test for fifth-graders to be given one time only last spring. It included a written portion and a section in which students spoke Spanish while being videotaped.

According to Silberman, tests given to kindergarten and third-grade students showed "they are where they should be in terms of language development."

But Reynolds said problems cropped up in scoring the fifth-grade test late this summer. The school system then asked a University of Kentucky expert to review the test, she said.

"It was determined that there were scoring issues, as well as issues with the administration of the test and the scoring guide, or rubric, that was used," she said. "This kind of thing isn't uncommon with a new pilot assessment that you aren't used to scoring. But what we're looking at is a set of scores that aren't valid."

And that isn't going over well with parents.

Sipport member Angie Funk contended that school district officials should have told parents about the problem weeks ago.

"Now, here it is November, and we're being told they weren't scored correctly and are invalid," she said. "It doesn't make sense.

"If the tests are invalid, then whoever came up with them didn't know what they were doing. If the tests are valid and the scores are too low, then there's still a problem."

Jack Hayes, the district's student achievement support director, said the in-house fifth-grade test always was intended for "pilot" use. And Fayette school officials say they are looking for a suitable, nationally normed test, such as the NOELLA, that fifth-grade language students could take next year, so there should be no repeat of the testing problem.