When Jiaquang Chu moved to Augusta last year, there were many obstacles to overcome - a new school, new friends and a new language.
The Chinese native's biggest challenge, though, was the Georgia High School Graduation Test.
"It was very hard, but I passed everything except the science part," the 18-year-old said of the five-section test.
Each year, Mr. Chu and other immigrant students face a language barrier in addition to rigorous academics, but some legislators would like to give them more time to master English before holding them to the same standards as other Georgia students.
If approved, House Bill 33 could exempt international students without English skills from all state-mandated student assessments for their first year of enrollment in a Georgia school.
"We have a growing population of immigrants here in Georgia, and we need to be sure we are giving the immigrant students a fair opportunity to learn the language before holding them accountable for the skills they haven't mastered," said Rep. Teresa Greene-Johnson, D-Lithonia, the bill's sponsor and a former English teacher from DeKalb County who has also taught in a program called English to Speakers of Other Languages.
Lynne Woo, who teaches English to Speakers of Other Languages at Glenn Hills High School, said she thinks the legislation is a good idea but doesn't know whether all students will take advantage of it.
"Some of my students think it is better to go ahead and take the tests to see how they do. That way they know what to expect," she said.
Grovetown Elementary School is one of the two schools in Columbia County that has the English to Speakers of Other Languages program. Twenty students are in the Grovetown program - three are Russian and the others are Latinos. Principal Joan Moore said about 4 percent of her pupils are Spanish-speaking.
Ms. Moore said she would like to see House Bill 33 go a step further.
"The administrative point of view is that these children need more time to be able to read the language before they can respond to questions," the principal said. "There are some students who aren't prepared, even after their second year in the classroom."
House Bill 33 would let a committee decide whether a student may take the test, but the school would still be able to deny the student's participation.
"When they come in and are required to take the standardized testing at the state level, it's usually just a frustration to them, and we don't get back enough data or information that would be helpful to us because they are really unable to test in English at that point in time," said Stevens Creek Elementary School Principal Michelle Paschal, whose school has Latinos in addition to children from Africa and Korea in its 27-pupil program.
A House study committee is looking at the bill to see whether it violates the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, said he's not sure he would support the measure.
"I would be concerned that it could be misused to not put the pressure on getting those kids to learn English quickly," he said. "I would have to hear a lot of arguments as to why that is a good idea."
Reach Ashlee Griggs and Melissa Hall at (706) 724-0851 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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