LAS VEGAS - The U.S. Department of Education has ordered Nevada to closely monitor low test scores for students with limited or no English language skills.
Following a complaint filed with the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights in Seattle, a five-page directive was sent to the Nevada Department of Education detailing how it should analyze and improve the test scores.
The directive points out that under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, every public school district must give minorities with limited English skills the same educational benefits that other students receive.
The students addressed in the directive typically are those who come from countries where English is not the primary language.
''Anytime something comes down from the Office for Civil Rights, we take it very seriously,'' said Paul La Marca, team leader for the state's standards, curriculum and assessment division. ''But this is not a new thing. We were concerned about the disparities in performance long before the complaint was filed.''
Gary Jackson, regional director of the civil rights office, declined to say who filed the complaint.
The state has until the beginning of the 2002-2003 school year to fully implement the directive.
Since the last school year, the state has been tracking scores from the national TerraNova exam and the state's High School Proficiency Exam by district and by students' English proficiency.
''The first thing we have to do is to look at the data,'' state Superintendent Mary Peterson said. ''We certainly need to be doing a better job of helping those kids.''
Results of the TerraNova test already tracked by the state over the past three years show that students with limited English proficiency consistently averaged scores about one-half of what other students scored.
The state study also reveals a disparity among races in the passing rate on the October 1999 High School Proficiency Exam given to juniors.
On the test, required to get a high school diploma, white and Asian 11th graders had significantly higher pass rates than Hispanics, blacks and American Indians.
La Marca, who forwarded the test information to the civil rights office in April, said he has not yet received a response.
If the federal officials determine the scores are disproportionate, at either the state or local level, certain actions can be taken.
First, the state will be asked to review its tests to determine whether they are ''valid and reliable.'' If the tests are acceptable, but the scores are not, the federal officials will meet with the state to determine alternatives for the students.
If students with limited English score significantly below the state's academic standards after the 2001-2002 school year, the state will determine whether districts have curriculums that meet the needs of those students.
The state also will determine whether students with limited English are given the same opportunity to learn material that they are later tested on. If the state determines a district does not have an adequate program, a corrective plan will be designed.
Further, the state can order districts to design remedial programs for limited English students who fail to perform adequately on standardized tests.