In mandating the use of standardized tests to measure the effectiveness of the public education system, lawmakers have been willing to grant exceptions for certain segments of the population. Students for whom English is a second language certainly are at a disadvantage, and their scores could unfairly jeopardize a school’s standing under the No Child Left Behind act.

In Illinois, these students have been allowed to take a different exam that uses simpler language. That is, until now.

A recent decision by the U.S. Department of Education will take effect this spring when pupils sit down for another battery of tests intended to measure how well they’ve retained their lessons. This time, kids enrolled in transitional classes will take the exact same test as their more fluent peers.

“Illinois is not alone in this,” Matt Vanover, a spokesperson for the Illinois State Board of Education said. “This is a national issue.”

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education confirmed last week that “several states” have been using an assessment for limited-English students that did not comply with the federal statute. The office did not say specifically how many states, but Arkansas, Indiana, New York, Texas, Wisconsin and Minnesota are all on the list.

“One of the main problems found across the states was that these tests did not measure grade-level reading (or math) content,” federal spokesman Jim Bradshaw said in an e-mailed response to the Review.

According to Vanover, the state isn’t yet sure what accommodations will be made for students, or how these changes might impact test scores. Local educators, however, don’t see how this could have a positive impact on what is already a pressure packed exam.

Tests administered under No Child Left Behind can influence federal funding, curriculum and staffing decisions.

In Forest Park, both public school districts have the same percentage of students who qualify for transitional bilingual programs, 4.6 percent. In Proviso Township High School District 209, this works out to roughly 228 students. In Forest Park School District 91, there are roughly 48 students in these programs, according to the 2007 district report cards released last month.

“Even if a student has just arrived from Bulgaria and is working in an [English as a second language] classroom, they have to take the same test as every other junior,” District 209 Superintendent Bob Libka said.

Because there is a fairly limited number of ESL students in Forest Park’s elementary and middle schools, district Testing Coordinator Beth Kovacic said it’s unlikely a sudden swing in those students’ scores will impact a school’s overall standing with respect to the federal guidelines. These changes, though, just add to what is an already “frustrating” testing process, she said.

“Definitely for larger districts that would be an issue,” Kovacic said.