For years, foreign students in Florida who entered the U.S. school system had one year to catch up to their peers before they had to start taking state achievement tests. Many underperformed – dragging down school and district test scores, and the federal funding tied to performance.

But on Monday, the U.S. Department Education approved a request from Florida to give English-language learners an extra year to play catch up – allowing their test scores to count only after two years of instruction.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan granted Florida the waiver after intense lobbying by the state.

The extra year comes at a time when the state is grappling from an influx of students from Central American who have fled violence in their country. Miami-Dade County, which already had 77,000 English-language learners, took in about 2,000 children who were part of the wave of recent immigrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Miami-Dade County schools Superintendent Albert Carvalho told The Miami Herald the waiver will be a major boost for the school system.

“We have more ELL students in Miami-Dade than the vast majority of the districts have in total population,” Carvalho said. “To expect them to perform as quickly or as efficiently, within the same timeline of native-born students, probably is not reasonable.”

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association said students develop the language of a native speaker after five to seven years. Still, education leaders in Florida say the extra year will make a major difference.

“The extra year is a huge deal,” Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie told the Herald. “You can just imagine if anyone here were to go to another country and, in just one year, we were expected to adjust to the new country ... and be expected to perform at the same level. We’re putting a group of kids at a severe disadvantage if we do that, and it’s just not fair.”

Includes reporting by The Associated Press.

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