Seventh grade at Indianapolis' Northwest Community High School was going to be a big adjustment for Jel Lu Too: He was a newly arrived Burmese war refugee straight from a camp in Thailand who spoke no English and had never attended a formal school.
Now, he had to take Indiana's state test during his first week in class.
School officials say state and federal mandates left them no choice about whether to administer the exam. So the 15-year-old sat for the test even though he couldn't read, write or speak English.
"Welcome to America," said Jessica Feeser, who directs Indianapolis Public Schools' program for English language learners, characterizing the message to the student. "Here, take this test."
A growing number of students like Jel Lu Too have immigrated to Indiana in recent years, posing new challenges for schools already under pressure to boost test scores. The schools must retrain their teachers, change their instructional programs and learn new ways of communicating with families — all with far less financial support from the state than in the past.
That's because the state has slashed funding for English language learners by half over the past decade, while the number of those students has risen by 30 percent.
The budget crunch and testing rules have advocates concerned about the way Indiana handles its growing immigrant population.
May Oo Mutraw's family also fled civil war in Burma, forced from their home to a refugee camp in Thailand, where classes were sometimes canceled because of bombing. Now, as a co-founder of the Burmese Community Center for Education, she supports refugees who attend school in Marion County — and she doesn't like what she sees.
"I feel the students are being marginalized, put aside," Mutraw said. "The system as it is now is not going to work for many of the refugee students. Instead, it hurts them."
How the funding system works
Good instruction for English language learners can be expensive, and advocates say Indiana simply isn't spending enough. The state's funding method has even drawn criticism from outside the state.
Schools do receive extra state money for programs for students still learning English — this year, about $87 per student for the roughly 55,000 students who qualify. But just eight years ago, schools got almost twice that amount, or $162 per student.
Idaho has a similar share of English language learners, for example, but spends about $245.42 extra per student, according to the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan group that tracks and compares state education policies.
The cuts have made it harder for educators to serve English language learners. Warren Township ELL teacher Carlota Holder said she has about 100 students and travels between two schools helping students in four grade levels — demands that she said make it impossible for her to give each child the instruction time they deserve.
"They are getting left behind," she said. "They're not supposed to be, but they are."
Funding for language learning programs is more volatile in Indiana than in other states because it is not part of the basic school funding formula, making it vulnerable to negotiation in the biennial budget process. The Education Commission of the States reports that just nine states fund language learning this way. Other states have moved away from Indiana's approach because it can be "more unstable and unpredictable," according to the group.
A proposal to increase support for language learners to $200 per student was included in the Indiana Senate's budget released earlier this month but was not in the House budget, and its fate is uncertain.
"When the dollars aren't there to provide adequate support, schools struggle," said Charlie Geier, who oversees the state's English language learning programs for the Indiana Department of Education. "It's not equitable by any means."
Shifting federal requirements
The funding cutbacks have coincided with tighter state rules about testing English language learners.
Until 2006, English language learners could wait three years before taking ISTEP. Instead, they were given an alternative exam that didn't figure into accountability grades for schools, and teachers could use portfolios of student work to show that they had mastered what they were taught if their test scores didn't measure up.
But that year, federal authorities put states, including Indiana, on notice for not having an adequate testing program for English language learners, a mandate of the No Child Left Behind act.
To avoid sanctions, many states, including Indiana, simply began giving English language learners the same tests as everyone else.
"Fairness isn't a word that the federal government uses," said Indiana's testing director, Michele Walker. "They just say, 'These are the requirements.' It's up to us to provide supports."
Graduation waivers a controversial practice
Some districts have found a way for their English language learners to graduate despite struggling on state tests by using a controversial exemption to strict testing requirements.
The state requires students to pass a 10th-grade English exam and a ninth-grade algebra test to graduate from high school.
But students who earn C's in those courses can be freed from the requirement and earn a waiver instead — as long as they earn a C average in that subject, secure recommendations from their teacher and principal, and jump through a series of other hoops.
At Southport High School, which has a large number of English language learners, 54 seniors got waivers last year and graduated without passing state tests — all but two were English language learners who could not pass the English exam.
State lawmakers have urged school districts to reduce the use of waivers in recent years after a 2012 Indianapolis Star investigation found that Indiana districts have increasingly used them to boost schools' graduation rates.
But Southport Principal Barbara Brouwer said she thinks the waivers are helping English learners, not hurting them. Students who earn waivers go on to college, she said. Some pass advanced classes and get prestigious scholarships.
"I cannot, in my heart of hearts, deny a kid a diploma because language was their barrier when they arrived and they can't pass a state assessment," Brouwer said. "There has to be some common sense. You have to consider where people start."
Expectations and reality
The state also is setting new, higher expectations for English language learners.
Indiana adopted new English learning standards at the end of 2013, with the goal of better preparing all students for the academic or job skills they'll need after graduation, regardless of their language proficiency.
The Department of Education is now training teachers across the state on the new standards.
"Dumbing down the curriculum for that student is not the way to get there," Geier said. "He might not be proficient in English, but that doesn't mean he can't understand a complex concept."
A new emphasis on rigorous coursework for English learners is needed in schools, Feeser said.
"You go from this system where we had standards but nobody really used them — they're just kind of there — to a system where we're trying to completely shift to a culture of shared ownership," Feeser said.
Mutraw said she thinks a statewide conversation about the policies that affect English language learners is the only way to help them improve.
"A lot more work needs to be done," Mutraw said. "There's no point in pretending that things are all right. Things are not all right. We have to work hard to make them all right."
Hayleigh Colombo and Shaina Cavazos are reporters for Chalkbeat Indiana, a nonprofit news website that reports on educational change in Indiana. Email them at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the series
This is part of a series on English language learners through a collaboration of The Star, Chalkbeat Indiana and WFYI Public Media.