Washington State released its list of “low-performing schools” a week before Christmas naming seven local institutions, including five in the Pasco School District (PSD). That number is down from last year, but Pasco still tied the Seattle and Tacoma districts for having the most failing schools.

PDS officials, however, insist their schools are succeeding. They say the tests are failing to evaluate how well their students are learning. Bilingual children are disadvantaged by the standardized testing, they say. It takes time for a small child to learn English well enough to demonstrate their knowledge of Math and Science, let alone English grammar. If the state tests were in Spanish, or tested how quickly the children were learning English, PSD schools would get good marks, explained Liz Flynn, executive director of student achievement.

I can count on one hand the number of non-white students in my 5A high school who were not adopted. That was in Davis County, Utah. But before my parents divorced, my sister and I attended Highland Middle School in Kennewick, which made the state’s low-performing list this year. Prior to that, my older sister was at Hawthorne Elementary in the early 1990s where she had at least two students in her fifth grade class who did not speak English. The bilingual teacher had to repeat everything twice, once in each language, thereby cutting in half the material she could cover. During other times, the teacher’s attention was monopolized by the two students struggling with their language hurtle.

This scenario from 20 years ago never happens today in the Pasco School District, Flynn insisted. The district bases its strategies on the most current research about effectively educating bilingual children. And not all of the English Learners speak Spanish, she said. One school has a large number of Russian speakers and there are a total of 30 languages spoken within the district.

The Pasco School District’s strategy is sophisticated, Flynn explained. Bilingual children are put in special programs that teach them core curriculum in their native language while teaching them English using a variety of research-proven methods. When their proficiency is high enough, the kids enter another program for “transitioning” students.

“The amount of English increases and the amount of primary language decreases through the grades,” she said. “It has been well established that it takes many years (7-10) to learn the high level of cognitive academic English that our students today are required to know in order to pass the state tests.”

If the tests on core subjects were in Spanish and Russian, the Pasco School District would be vindicated, she said.

“These schools do what is needed to get the students ready for the secondary schools—both in their core content and English… English-Language Learners need time to learn English. They likely will not have enough time in elementary school. It is unfair to punish the schools that serve these students. Hold them accountable in a way that makes sense, i.e. in their primary language or for their growth in English proficiency,” she said.

The problem is so pronounced for Pasco, Flynn added, because of the high number of students in this category. Almost 34 percent of pupils struggle with their English, and another 17 percent are “transitioning.” There may be even more children who have not been tagged by the district as needing special help but may be struggling to learn core subjects because of language, not comprehension, problems. All in all, 67 percent of kids come from bilingual homes. There also a high number of children, about 14 percent of the total, who come from “migratory” families, Flynn said. These kids may not stay in any one school district’s program long enough to see significant results.

When asked what would help PSD, Flynn said the primary thing is time. Children need time to perfect their English. The test results are predictable considering the demographics. Pasco schools are doing a great job teaching English and core curriculum, she said, the youngest children just struggle with the tests.

“Low-income, English-Language Learners need more time and access to education.  But what has the state done? Cut the budgets so poor districts like Pasco had to cut the school year. Our students need more days, not fewer. And the 2012 Legislature is considering cutting even more days,” she said.

Do you have children in the Pasco School District? How do you think the schools are doing?