August 3, 2008 - 4:35PM
McALLEN - A federal court ruling last week could affect every school district in the Rio Grande Valley.
The ruling forces the Texas Education Agency to overhaul its system for teaching and monitoring the progress of students with limited English proficiency by Jan. 31.
The impact could be especially strong here in the Rio Grande Valley, where 39 percent of students are LEPs, and every district has at least some students with limited English skills.
"...TEA has not met its obligation to remedy the language deficiencies of Texas students," wrote U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice in a 95-page opinion.
More than half the students in the Valley View, Hidalgo, Rio Grande City, Donna and Roma districts are classified as having limited proficiency with the English language.
"Obviously, we're not doing something right," said Ofelia Gaona, director of the bilingual department in Donna. "The only ones paying the price are the children."
The League of United Latin American Citizens and the GI Forum, which advocate for Hispanic-American equal rights, were the plaintiffs in the case.
Justice wrote that "the statistics for secondary LEP students are undeniably egregious."
The ruling cited a 16.3-percent dropout rate for LEP students who should have graduated in 2004, compared to 3.9 percent of all students.
The ruling also cited disparate test scores and retention rates between secondary LEP students and their peers.
"The failure of secondary LEP students under every metric clearly and convincingly demonstrates student failure, and accordingly, the failure of the ESL secondary program in Texas," Justice wrote.
Suzanne Marchman, a TEA spokeswoman, said the agency was disappointed with the judge's decision and would likely ask the Attorney General to appeal the ruling.
Marchman declined to respond to the ruling's specific criticisms of TEA, citing the pending litigation.
David Hinojosa, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said he is hopeful - but not optimistic - that TEA will make changes that "give teeth" to the state's ESL programs. Those changes must be implemented for the 2009-2010 school year, according to Justice's ruling.
"These students have long been ignored, and it all starts with the state," Hinojosa said.
Hinojosa said if the state does not meet the Jan. 31 deadline, it would likely face some sort of sanction from the federal court. Arizona faced financial sanctions in 2005 for failing to comply with a deadline set by a federal judge in a similar case.
Justice also described "fatal flaws" in TEA's system for monitoring LEP students' performance, which fails to identify all LEP students and masks poor performance by aggregating data between multiple grade levels.
In Texas, LEP students receive bilingual education through sixth grade and take ESL instruction in grades seven and higher.
That system was implemented 25 years ago, but Justice wrote it is clear that TEA "failed to achieve results" in that time.
Nearly all LEP students in Texas are Hispanic, but according to the ruling, just 13 percent of them are classified as immigrants.
The ruling even cited a deposition of former TEA Commissioner Shirley Neeley, who said there's "not anybody in their right mind that would say these are good scores."
Hinojosa said there are no statewide standards that define what an ESL program really is, and ESL is implemented "at the whim of school districts." Gaona said she believes the bilingual and ESL programs schools use should be based on solid research.
"You can do practically anything to satisfy an ESL program," Hinojosa said.
Ryan Holeywell covers PSJA, the Mid-Valley and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at (956) 683-4446.