Some students at Storm Lake High School plan to protest on Friday over the use of required English Language Development Assessment testing at the school, although the teen who is the focus of the issue hopes her fellow students will not put themselves at risk.
Lori Phanachone, a senior at SLHS, says she was asked to leave school on Friday and is missing her classes with in-school suspension all this week after refusing to take the ELDA test.
"I'm kind of scared, but I'm also hard-headed, I admit, and I plan to fight for what I believe in," she said.
The battery of tests is designed to allow schools to measure annual progress in the acquisition of English language proficiency skills among non-native English speaking students in grades K-12.
Phanachone said she took the test in her sophomore year when she moved to Storm Lake and scored proficient. Last year, she partially completed the test, but began to feel it was discriminatory.
When she was assigned to test again last week, she said she attended but would not take out her pencil. She was escorted to an administrator's office.
"I refused to take the ELDA test, which is a test designed for students who speak a second language. The school determines this by the answer students put on their school registration forms when asked, "What was your first language?" The test is based only on that fact," said Phanachone. She called the test "insulting and degrading."
"For example, in the speaking part of the test the instructor asked me to describe the chair I was sitting in. Then I was shown a picture and asked to write one sentence about the picture. I have a 3.9 GPA and am ranked 7th in my graduating class. I was told that the test is to prove that I am able to speak, write, read, and comprehend English. My response was, "Have I not proved myself for the past 13 plus years?"
She said she feels students who began life speaking another language are being unfairly singled out in the testing. "For the school and federal government to throw this test in my face, when I could have aced it in first grade, is wrong.
"Someone told me last year to put English as my first language when I registered for school, but I refuse to do so. I will not deny who I am and will not disrespect my culture or my mother," she said.
Phanachone said she feels that all she has worked for is being put in jeopardy including her opportunity to compete in National DECA events and on the track team, to be honored as a National Honor Society member and go to her senior prom. She originally feared for her opportunity to graduate, but said her mother was told yesterday that she would be allowed to graduate.
The worst, she said, is missing out on her classes. "I'm starting to fall a little behind. I feel like I am losing so much and am cut out from learning because I'm standing up on something I feel is wrong. This hits hy heart very hard."
The ELDA tests are not a product of the local district, however; but in part a collaboration between member states and the U.S. Department of Education.
She doesn't blame the school or the district, she said. "It's a federal program. I know the school administrators are just doing their jobs." She said that she understands that under policy, she may next face an out-of-school suspension, and possibly be required to appear before the board of education.
"I am not against ESL programs and I am not against help that is needed. My mom does not speak English, so I know how hard a language barrier can be. But I am against discrimination. I am lost, confused, stressed out, angry, sad, emotional, worried, and fed up," she said. "I am confused as to why students who bust their... every day have to take a test that makes them feel two feet tall."
She said she plans to continue to try to fight the policy. "I'm not just doing this for me," she said.
The protest is being planned for the Flindt Drive area near the school, according to an anonymous student caller to the Pilot-Tribune.
But Phanachone isn't eager to see it happen. "It makes me feel good to know that I am not alone, but I don't want any of my friends and fellow students to get in trouble because of me. They don't deserve that, and they should make a decision to keep themselves safe in this situation."