Officials in high-immigrant school districts are taking issue with the U.S. Department of Education's requirement that children still trying to learn English take the same reading tests given to their native-speaking classmates.

The federal department this month threatened sanctions against Virginia — including the possibility of withholding funding — if the state doesn't enforce the No Child Left Behind law provision requiring English learners to take grade-level reading tests.

The Virginia Department of Education had sought an exemption from the law for another year, contending that the rule is unfair because students who haven't mastered English are unlikely to pass grade-level reading exams. The federal department denied the request, telling Virginia officials that they have known about the NCLB guidelines for some time and have had time to come up with a satisfactory substitute test for English learners.

School superintendents in cities and counties with many immigrants say that accountability is a good thing, but teachers can't measure students' reading progress if the children fail the tests because they can't understand them.

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Immigrants who have been in the U.S. a short time "are simply unable to take a test written in English and produce results that are meaningful in any way," said Donald J. Ford, superintendent of the Harrisonburg city school division.

Of Harrisonburg's 4,400 students, 39 percent are English learners, and nearly 750 of them are classified as beginners, school officials said. Most of the immigrants are Hispanic, and others are Russian and Kurdish children. The Shenandoah Valley city has many immigrants who work in poultry plants.

School boards in Harrisonburg and the Washington, D.C., suburbs of Fairfax, Prince William, and Arlington counties are among those that have recently signaled their intent to defy the NCLB mandate, and others are considering following suit.

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said that Virginia is "dragging its feet" and called the provision — which she called the law's Standards Clause — a necessary measure to counter "the soft bigotry of low expectations." In a Feb. 4 letter to The Washington Post, Spellings said, "It's time to remember that yes, Virginia, there is a Standards Clause."

Spelling's comments incensed school division officials, including Arlington County School Board chairwoman Libby Garvey.

"We're all so angry," said Garvey, who briefed her statewide counterparts on the issue at the recent annual meeting of the Virginia School Boards Association. She called taking the test a "painful and humiliating experience" for children who haven't grasped English.

Similar disagreements will continue to arise in other states where there are many students who aren't proficient in English, said Reggie Felton, lobbyist for the National School Boards Association. The association has asked that the federal education department grant each state the flexibility "for real-life situations to ensure that the test is valid and reliable for each student."

In Arizona, where there are many Latino immigrants, school officials also are grappling with testing language learners.

"We believe that English language-learner students come to school with different levels of competency," said Panfilo Contreras, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association. "They may not be proficient in their own language, let alone English."

The issue is part of a larger debate over NCLB, which seeks to have all students, regardless of race, poverty or disability, proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014. It calls for students to be tested in math and reading in the third through eighth grades and once in high school, and it requires schools to show annual progress in test scores. If schools fail to show progress by each of numerous student subgroups — including children who have limited English proficiency — they face being labeled failing schools.

As in other states, Virginia education officials have sought several other waivers to the law, primarily arguing that the state already has a rigorous assessment system, and that NCLB doesn't take into account progress made under that system. The federal law comes up for reauthorization in the current Congress.