Phoenix, AZ – This scene is a familiar one all across the region: A room full of high school students newly arrived in the US face a screen with pictures of clip art - apples and books, fans and fish - flashing in front of them.
"Hey what letter for apple? A! Computer: That's right."
This is English class for kids who don't yet speak the language, and in Arizona it's four hours long. There's only one way out: a test called the AZELLA, first introduced in 2006. Since then, Karen Grimwood, who directs the English Language program at Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix, has noticed a marked change in the group of students she works with.
Karen: It's getting smaller and smaller, frankly. A few years ago, we had over 600 ESL students in our school and this year we're down to about 130. So it has really shrunk.
Interestingly, English class sizes shrunk at her high school even while the number of students there whose first language is not English stayed the same. In fact, the number of students in special English Language classes has shrunk all across the state - from more than 150,000 students in 2005 to about 116,000 in 2010. To Andy Lefevre, at Arizona's Department of Education, this means that their new English Immersion methods are working.
Andy: What we've seen is that putting those students in those four hour classes is made a dramatic improvement in the number of students who are able to mainstream back into the class over the last couple of years as compared to previous years.
Last year the state was able to re-classify nearly 30% of their English language students as proficient, moving these students into mainstream classes. This is one of the highest rates in years.
But lawyer Tim Hogan says this reclassification rate is this high ONLY because the testing system pushes the kids out of English classes too quickly. Hogan is involved in a lawsuit that's been going on for decades over the state's English program.
Tim Hogan: In some aspects, they've made the AZELLA test easier, so that kids get out more quickly, and therefore the state is off the hook in paying for them.
In Arizona, it costs about $400 more per year to educate an English Language Learner than it does a regular student. So there's a huge incentive to get them out of English classes and into the mainstream. Like Tim Hogan, Karen Grimwood says the AZELLA is much easier than the test they used to use.
Karen: We analyzed the reading on the AZELLA, and it will exit them when they can read at a fourth grade level. .. they can be in tenth grade, and they take the AZELLA and if they can read at a fourth grade level, it says Ok! You're done! Out you go.
A recent study out of UCLA found the same thing - that AZELLA test questions have gotten easier over the last few years. It also noted that even students who weren't passing the test in the upper grades, were STILL being moved into mainstream classes.
Tim: If you're an English language learner, the law places an obligation on you to provide language support for that student.
Again, lawyer Tim Hogan.
Tim: And so if a student is pre-maturely exited from language support and is out there in the school without any language support and therefore their ability to access the curriculum is impaired, that's a violation of the law.
The U.S. Department of Justice seems to agree. Last August, they sent a letter to Arizona's Department of Education to inform them that they were no longer permitted to only use the AZELLA, saying the test was not a valid way to measure English proficiency.
Six months later, school district officials in Phoenix report that the AZELLA is still the only measure for students learning English. Neither the Department of Justice or the Arizona Department of Education were willing to comment on the issue, saying, quote the case is still open.