Federal investigations conclude Arizona violates the rights of students learning English

Two federal investigations have found that Arizona is violating the civil rights of some students who are not native English speakers by denying them access to special programs for English learners.

In one case, the U.S. Education and Justice departments concluded that Arizona is inappropriately classifying students as fluent in English when tests show they are not.

In the other case, investigators found that the state is not identifying thousands of students who might struggle with English because it replaced a three-question survey with a single vague question.

Arizona could lose millions in federal funding if officials don't fix the system to address investigators' concerns.

"The ... test seems to have become bogged down by a political agenda," said Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association, a teachers union.

Morrill said education department policies seem to have been designed to give fewer students access to English learner programs to save money.

Acting on a complaint from an unspecified source, investigators analyzed Arizona's procedures for classifying students as English learners. They determined that some students were being inappropriately classified as proficient in English before they had mastered all aspects of the language.

Arizona scores a student's English skills in four areas: speaking, listening, reading and writing. A higher score in one area can offset a lower score in another area, so a student might be classified as proficient in English if he reads, writes and listens well but struggles to speak.

As a result, investigators found, some students who should have access to an English learner program are never granted it. Others are removed from the program too early.

In such cases, the state is denying students an opportunity to fully participate in a classroom setting — a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act, investigators found.

State schools chief Tom Horne said the test is developed by contractor.

"I'll let our testing people talk to their testing people, and if they agree that anything should get changed in the test then we'll change it," Horne said. "But there's certainly no effort to keep people out" of English learner programs.

In a separate case, investigators looked into Arizona's new system for identifying students who should be tested for their English proficiency. Education officials eliminated a three-question parent survey in favor of a single question.

The state used to ask about the first language a student acquired, the language used most often and the language spoken at home. Now it asks a single question: "What is the primary language of the student."

School districts reported that the question confused parents. Investigators determined that it led some students to be inappropriately denied access to English learner programs or subjected to an unnecessary delay.

Investigators found that the question was confusing. In the 2009-2010 school year, the first year the new system was used, 114,000 students were tested for their English proficiency — a decline of 46 percent from the year earlier.

The 99,000 students classified as English learners represented a 25 percent decline over the prior year.

Horne said he changed the survey because it was catching native English speakers who had relatives speaking another language at home.