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Non-English proficiency tests on table in Medford

The Medford School Board is weighing an option that would allow non-native English speakers to complete state-required proficiency tests in their home language to graduate.

The board must decide by the end of the month whether to allow the policy change, which would allow only a small number of students demonstrate proficiency in tests using their first language. The board shared a handful of concerns about the proposed policy change during a work session Monday, but will not vote on it until a meeting later this month.

"I want to make sure we're graduating students with a quality education," said board member Marlene Yesquen, who was part of a board sub-committee formed to study the policy change. "We would be diminishing the quality of our graduation requirement."

Yesquen and board member Jeff Thomas shared concerns that the policy change may have been put on the table by the Oregon Department of Education as an easy way to raise graduation rates.

The state created the "essential skills" graduation requirements in 2008, requiring districts to phase in proficiency testing in various subjects for students, beginning with the class of 2012.

An Oregon Administrative Rule adopted in December of 2010 requires school districts to come up with a policy on whether they will allow the native-language proficiency tests. The district has until June 30 to make its decision.

The state estimates that between 475 and 825 graduates in Oregon each year might fall under the policy change, which would apply only to students that meet all other graduation requirements, according to Terri Dahl, supervisor of federal programs for the district.

"It's a tough decision," said Dahl, who noted that although the state is asking boards to vote on the policy change this year, she wouldn't be surprised if the policy becomes a mandate in the future.

Dahl said that as few as four or five students in the district each year might be eligible to use the native-language option.

Thomas said he was concerned that letting a student demonstrate subjects such as reading and writing in their first language might mislead students into thinking they could obtain a job in the United States at easily as a fellow high school graduate who speaks fluent English.

"These kids need to graduate with hope and knowing with what they've earned, they can be successful," said Thomas.

The policy would apply to students that have been enrolled in U.S. schools for fewer than five years and who demonstrate an intermediate score on an English language proficiency test to show they are learning the language.

"We're concerned that we're going to hand a degree to a student that can't speak English," said Thomas.

The Phoenix-Talent School District approved the policy change last year and Dahl said most districts in the state are doing the same.

"It took some staff time, but it's been well worth the effort," said Teresa Sayre, director of instructional services for Phoenix-Talent.

Sayre said that while only one student was eligible this year, the ability to take the test in her native Spanish language was invaluable.

"For this one student, it's making a world of difference," she said.

Banking on the hope that students could become proficient even after graduating high school, board member Sally Killen said she supported the policy change.

"I hate to hold back kids and say the only time you have to learn the language is in high school," said Killen. "I'm inclined to support this."

Board Chairwoman Paulie Brading said she understood the concerns from other board members but supported the idea behind the policy change.

"I think students deserve to demonstrate their proficiency no matter what their language is," Brading said.

The board approved a first reading of the policy Monday, but will vote on whether to adopt the change during a meeting later this month.

Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or tristow@mailtribune.com.