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  • Iowa, "the English-only State," suspends student for refusing English proficiency test

    Lori Phanachone, a senior at Storm Lake High School in northwest Iowa who's spoken English all her life, has been suspended from school for refusing to take an English-language proficiency test.

    Phanachone found the English Language Development Assessment, a test required annually of all students considered by the state to be non-English speakers, both "insulting and degrading." This sample question from Iowa's guide for teachers administering the ELDA suggests that her assessment of the test is right:

    Sample ELDA question

     Lori Phanachone could have aced questions like this in first grade. She says that making her answer them as a high school senior is insulting and degrading.

    Phanachone, who told the Storm Lake Pilot Tribune, "I could have aced it in first grade," actually passed the proficiency test as a sophomore, when her family moved to Storm Lake, but after she was told to retake the test the following year she began to see it as discriminatory and answered questions randomly. When she was told to take the test again this year, she refused outright.

    Superintendent of Schools Paul Tedesco isn't treating Phanachone's rebellion lightly. He told the Des Moines Register that rules are rules, and suspending a student for refusing an English proficiency assessment "is no different from a child who refuses to remove an offensive T-shirt at school." Apparently some of Phanachone's classmates agree that she shouldn't have to take the test, and they're risking suspension too by handing out "Support Lori" t-shirts to make their point.

    Phanachone was born in California and speaks and writes English with native fluency. However her mother is a Laotian immigrant, and she chose to honor that heritage by putting down on her school entrance forms that her first language was Lao. (Even though that is the case, she was able to read those forms in English, and fill them out in English as well – Iowa has no Lao version of the entrance forms, though they are available in Bosnian.)

    But Storm Lake administrators are insisting that all students whose first language is not English are required by the federal No Child Left Behind law to take an English proficiency test every year.

    That's not exactly true. According to Iowa Code section 280.4, simply stating that your first language isn't English "does not in itself identify a student as an English language learner."

    In addition, both NCLB and the Iowa education code exempt students who have already demonstrated proficiency in English through success in an English-only classroom from taking additional language proficiency assessments.

    The Iowa law goes on to say that English proficiency testing is required only if:

    a student's language background is in a language other than English, and the student's proficiency in English is such that the probability of the student's academic success in an English-only classroom is below that of an academically successful peer with an English language background [emphasis added]

    The state's criteria for proficiency include "Evidence of success in the regular classroom" and "Sustainability of the success (one or two years)." Phanachone demonstrated her English fluency during thirteen years in American classrooms. On top of that, Phanachone's near-perfect high school GPA (3.9, seventh in her graduating class) and her letters of admission to two Iowa colleges further demonstrate her fluency in English, so she would seem to be exempt from additional language testing.

    But Iowa, which first banned the use of foreign languages back in 1918, is eager to be known once again as "the English-Only state" (or civitas solus anglius, if you prefer your state mottoes in Latin), and now seems bent on forcing not just immigrants, but also English speakers, to get their English measured.

    Iowa passed an official English law in 2002, and this year Iowa Rep. Steve King, who drafted the legislation, sued Iowa's current governor for providing election materials on the state's web site in languages other than English, something which appears to violate Iowa's official language law but is required by federal election law.

    King also introduced the English Language Unity Act, H.R. 997, in the U.S. House of Representatives for the past three terms. And, since in the end English might not be enough to unify the country, he even offered to have his construction company build an electrified fence to separate the U.S. and Mexico.

    Schools should educate children, not infantilize them. If need be, schools should educate lawmakers as well, not follow rules blindly and incorrectly. In the meantime, though, Storm Lake High School may leave Lori Phanachone behind. Authorities have threatened to take away her prom privileges, drop her from the track team, and revoke her membership in the National Honor Society, a membership which attests to her ability to use the English language. Perhaps it's time for Iowans to don some offensive t-shirts after all, before Steve King starts throwing them in jail for refusing to pass English tests -- of course, once there, they can start cranking out Iowa's new English-only license plates.

    Iowa license plate reading,

horner.bruce@gmail.com Mar 7, 2009 11:34 am

Steve King once stated in a public forum on language policies that he was shocked to hear that some of us doubted kings and emperors didn't always have our best interests at heart.  The story of this high school student shows that often "kings" don't.  Iowa should redeem itself by putting King out of his current job trying to tell Iowans what's best for them, against their better judgment.

david.grant@uni.edu Mar 9, 2009 2:03 pm

Sadly, King "represents" (and I use that term loosely) the westernmost third of the state. None of the three public universities are located there, one of the two urban centers is across from Omaha and has a secondary status as a result, and the demographics are aging fast as young people move to urban areas where the jobs are. It is not representative of Iowa, where we have a diverse working-class population in the manufacturing centers like Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, and Davenport; strong African-American and Bosnian populations in Waterloo; and a still -vibrant agrarian populism in Decorah, Fairfield, and Iowa City. But, yes, as I am sure Brice knows from his time in Des Moines, the western third can swing the policies of the whole state quite unfairly!

notify@kallistipress.com Mar 18, 2009 4:27 pm

The IELDA's "Who Should Be Assessed" document (to which your link seems broken, btw) also has this:

Exit.  When the student satisfies the district’s EXIT criteria, the student is no longer considered ELL and is not counted as ELL on the BEDS.  The student is considered as EXITED from programs and services and does not receive English/second language acquisition support.  The state, through project EASIER, still “monitors” the student for AYP purposes for two more years. 

If Phanachone is actually exited, which I haven't seen reported one way or the other, then it may be that the school is administering the test for AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress).  In other words, the test might be being used to show that the school has actually done its job.

So there are two possibilities:
a) Phanachone has not been exited, but has met the requirements for exit, in which case there's some paperwork to be filled out, and that's it.  If this is the case, I would suspect the school would have completed that paperwork the moment this story hit the internet, so I find this unlikely.
b) Alternately, it's quite possible that the school isn't even calling into question Phanachone's fluency, but is trying to show that they've done right by her.  Even so, suspension and threats of expulsion are just silly for her non-compliance.

I strongly suspect these people just need to sit down and talk to each other.

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