KAI RYSSDAL: Officials from Virginia's Fairfax County school district have a multimillion-dollar meeting in Washington tomorrow. It's a last-ditch effort to avoid fines over how the district tests its students.
Fairfax is one of the wealthiest and most widely-respected public school systems in the country. But it's run into trouble with the U.S. Department of Education over No Child Left Behind, which says you have to test virtually everybody. Even kids still learning to speak or read English. Marketplace's Steve Henn reports.
STEVE HENN: The Fairfax County Public School system has a $2.2 billion budget and 164,000 students.
SRAVYA GUDUR: My name is Sravya. I was born in India.
Sravya Gudur came to the U.S. about seven years ago, and is one of more than 20,000 students in Fairfax who do not speak English at home.
KARYN NILES: I wanna see your reading from yesterday on your desk . . .
Karyn Niles is Sravya's eighth grade social studies teacher.
NILES: I mean, I'm teaching them to read as quickly as I can.
Still, Fairfax County has recently decided not to give some of its slowest English-language learners a state language arts test that's mandated by No Child Left Behind. The federal law requires every state to test almost every student in grade-level reading and math. These results count toward each school system's report card.
JACK DALE: So we talk quite at length with my leadership team about what we should do.
Jack Dale is Fairfax County's school superintendent. He says some states offer exams in children's native languages. Virginia has chosen not to.
So that leaves the district with a tough choice: comply with the federal law and get slammed for poor performance, or not test and risk possible federal fines.
Indeed, federal officials say Fairfax's decision could cost its schools up to $17 million next year alone.
DALE: And we believe that what we should do is probably not test the kids then. They can't read English. They don't have the basic literacy levels that are necessary. So you won't have a valid test. So why bother putting a test in front of them?
Dale insists he's not trying to avoid testing students who won't do well. He says testing English-language learners on grade-level English simply doesn't make sense.
That attitude alarms Peter Zamora, an attorney at the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
PETER ZAMORA: Any student population that's not included risks being left out of the discussion around education reform.
Zamora believes that, for years, public schools across the country haven't paid enough attention to foreign-language students — and he says the consequences are devastating.
ZAMORA: The dropout rate is around 70 percent for English-language learners.
No Child Left Behind scores are broken down and analyzed by race, class and language ability. Zamora sees that as the genius of the law.
ZAMORA: So Fairfax, like many school districts and states even, you know, would have a good average score. But once you look at individual student populations, you see very different outcomes based upon race and class and language ability.
If any one group of kids fails to meet state standards, the school districts are held accountable.
Zamora believes these high-stakes tests, like No Child Left Behind, force school systems across the country to do better. He's worried if schools simply stop testing these kids, they'll also end up ignoring them.
ZAMORA: By 2025 experts expect fully one quarter, 25 percent, of our student population to be made up of English-language learners. So at that point, we're really ignoring a huge proportion of our student population.
Zamora says that's not only bad for students learning English. Over time, it could have a dreadful effect on the American economy.
In Washington, I'm Steve Henn for Marketplace.