Coachella Valley Unified School Dist. v. State of California

Citation98 Cal. Rptr. 3d 9,176 Cal.App.4th 93
Decision Date30 July 2009
Docket NumberNo. A120667.,A120667.
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals
PartiesCOACHELLA VALLEY UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. STATE OF CALIFORNIA et al., Defendants and Respondents.

Hadsell, Stormer, Keeny, Richardson & Renick, Dan Stormer, Virginia Keeny; Law Offices of Marc Coleman, Marc Coleman; Garcia, Calderon & Ruiz and Mary Hernandez for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc., and Cynthia L. Rice for Adelaida Gutierrez as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Baute & Tidus, Sean A. Andrade; Roberta Fesler and John F. Walsh for Los Angeles Unified School District as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Edmund G. Brown, Jr., Attorney General, Douglas M. Press, Assistant Attorney General, Karin S. Schwartz, Susan M. Carson and Jennifer A. Bunshoft, Deputy Attorneys General, for Defendants and Respondents.



California participates in the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLBA) (20 U.S.C. § 6301 et seq.) and includes in its assessment program for purposes of NCLBA accountability most of the nearly 1.6 million students attending public schools in this state who are classified as "limited English proficient" or "English learners."1 California tests all its students in English, although school districts are obliged to provide limited English proficient (LEP) students certain accommodations or testing variations if the same are regularly used in the classroom or for assessment. Appellants—nine school districts2 receiving funds under the NCLBA—are seeking a writ of mandate requiring respondents to abide by the law's requisites for assessing LEP students. They are certain that the NCLBA sets forth ministerial duties capable of enforcement by a writ of mandate, and respondents did not observe these duties. Specifically, they claim that because California tests LEP students in English for purposes of NCLBA accountability, the tests are not "valid and reliable" for these students as required by the federal legislation. Additionally, the School Districts argue that the trial court was wrong in deciding as a matter of law that the LEP assessment program which the State Board adopted did not constitute an abuse of discretion.

As we explain, the School Districts' premise that the purpose of California's LEP testing regime is at odds and incompatible on its face with the NCLBA is incorrect. Moreover, the federal law affords participating states considerable discretion in fashioning an assessment program for their LEP students. To this end, the State Board exercised its quasi-legislative powers in adopting the testing policy and program that it did. Our standard for reviewing this action is exceedingly deferential, as contrasted with the independent judgment standard which the School Districts hope we will employ. Finally, we are convinced that the State Board did not abuse its discretion as a matter of law in rendering these key policy decisions, and accordingly affirm the judgment.

A. NCLBA Framework
1. Overview

Signed into law in January 2002, the NCLBA significantly amended the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965,3 which historically provided federal educational grants to the states under its title I provisions. The NCLBA continues as a federal funding statute with the overarching purpose of ensuring "that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging State academic achievement standards and state academic assessments." (20 U.S.C. § 6301, fn. omitted.) Academic accountability is the cornerstone of the act, as it strives to ensure that "high-quality academic assessments, accountability systems, teacher preparation and training, curriculum, and instructional materials are aligned with challenging State academic standards so that students, teachers, parents, and administrators can measure progress against common expectations for student academic achievement." (Id., § 6301(1); see Connecticut v. Spellings (D.Conn. 2006) 453 F.Supp.2d 459, 468-469.)

Congress enacted the NCLBA pursuant to its spending powers. (U.S. Const., art. I, § 8, cl. 1.) Incident to the spending power, "Congress may attach conditions on the receipt of federal funds, and has repeatedly employed the power `to further broad policy objectives by conditioning receipt of federal moneys upon compliance by the recipient with federal statutory and administrative directives.' [Citations.]" (South Dakota v. Dole (1987) 483 U.S. 203, 206 [97 L.Ed.2d 171, 107 S.Ct. 2793], quoted in Connecticut v. Spellings, supra, 453 F.Supp.2d at p. 469.) States choosing to participate in the NCLBA thus must adopt challenging academic content standards that apply to all students, and create and implement a statewide accountability system for ensuring that schools make "adequate yearly progress." (20 U.S.C. § 6311(b)(1)(A), (B), (2)(A).) The engine measuring this progress is the set of standards-based tests aligned to those content standards and administered to students on a yearly basis. (Id., § 6311(b)(3)(A), (C)(ii).)

To be considered for funding, the state educational agency must package these standards, accountability system and assessment measures into a plan that it submits to the Secretary of Education (Secretary). (20 U.S.C. § 6311(a)(1).) The plans in turn are subject to a peer review process and require the Secretary's approval. (Id., § 6311(e)(1)(A), (C).) The Secretary has 120 days from submission of a plan to determine, with the assistance of the peer review process, if the plan meets the requirements of the statute. (Ibid.) Once approved, a state plan remains in effect for the duration of the state's participation in the NCLBA program. (20 U.S.C. § 6311(f)(1)(A).) However, states may revise their plans to reflect changes in strategies and programs, with all significant changes submitted to the Secretary. (Id., § 6311(f)(2).)

2. Annual Testing Requirements

The NCLBA requires participating states to conduct annual testing of students in each of grades three through eight, and at least once for grades 10 through 12, in mathematics and reading or language arts.4 (20 U.S.C § 6311(b)(3)(C)(v)(I), (vii).) All students are to be included in the annual assessment program, including LEP students. (Id., § 6311(b)(3)(C)(ix)(III).) These are students whose native language is not English and "whose difficulties in speaking, reading, writing, or understanding the English language may be sufficient to deny the individual—[¶] (i) the ability to meet the State's proficient level of achievement [under the NCLBA] . . . ." (20 U.S.C. § 7801(25)(C)(i), (D)(i).)

LEP students "shall be assessed in a valid and reliable manner and provided reasonable accommodations on assessments . . ., including, to the extent practicable, assessments in the language and form most likely to yield accurate data on what such students know and can do in academic content areas, until such students have achieved English language proficiency . . . ." (20 U.S.C. § 6311(b)(3)(C)(ix)(III).) The United States Department of Education's (USDE) March 2003 "Standards and Assessments Non-Regulatory Guidance" clarifies that accommodations for LEP students may include extra time, native language assessments, administration to a small group, flexible scheduling, simplified instruction, use of dictionaries, and giving instructions in the native language. Further, the guide provides: "To the extent practicable, States must make every effort to develop and administer native language assessments, if doing so is likely to yield the most accurate and reliable information about what those students know and can do. If the administration of native language assessments is not practicable, for example, when only a small percentage of limited-English students in the State speak a particular language, States must offer students of limited English proficiency other appropriate accommodations in order to yield accurate and reliable information on what those students know and can do in subjects other than English."

Once a student has attended school in the United States for three consecutive years, the statute calls for assessment of reading or language arts using tests written in English, unless, on a case-by-case basis, the local school district decides to extend native language testing for another two years. (20 U.S.C. § 6311(b)(3)(C)(x).) Additionally, a state may, for one year, exempt from the NCLBA reading and language arts testing requirement those LEP students who have attended schools in the United States for less than 12 months. (34 C.F.R. § 200.6(b)(4) (2009).)

Consistent with the goal of including all LEP students in a statewide assessment regime, the NCLBA calls for each state to "identify the languages other than English" that are spoken in the various student populations "and indicate the languages for which yearly student academic assessments are not available and are needed." (20 U.S.C. § 6311(b)(6).) States must make "every effort" to develop these assessments and may request assistance from the Secretary if such assessments are needed. However, the Secretary cannot mandate a specific assessment or mode of instruction. (Ibid.)

The NCLBA also attends to the quality of state assessments. States may select the assessment to measure proficiency, but all assessments must be aligned with the state's academic standards and must be "consistent with relevant, nationally recognized professional and technical standards." (20 U.S.C. § 6311(b)(3)(C)(ii), (iii).)

3. Adequate Yearly Progress

The NCLBA umbrella of reforms aims above all to improve student achievement, increase accountability of educational providers and close the achievement gaps between different student populations. (20 U.S.C. § 6301(1)-(3)....

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