When she transfered to Storm Lake High School in Iowa from a high school in New York, Lori Phanachone indicated that she spoke a language other than English at home. As a result, the teenager, who was born in California and is a second generation Laotian American, was forced to take a basic English-proficiency exam every year or face disciplinary action.
Despite the fact that Phanachone, now 17, was seventh in her graduating high school class and has a 3.9 GPA, school officials said she was “illiterate” because she refused to continue taking the English Language Development Assessment (ELDA). They called Phanachone’s refusal “insubordination” and suspended her for three days.
After passing the test as a sophomore, Panachone was instructed to retake the exam the following year. Believing the request to be insulting, and that her 13 years of near flawless academic achievement should be proof enough of her aptitude, Panachone instead chose to sabatoge the results by filling in only C’s.
This last year when she was approached to take the test for a third time, she stepped up her game. She attended the exam but would not take out her pencil, which resulted in her being sent to speak with school administrators.
"[Assistant Principal Beau] Ruleaux told me I was ‘no Rosa Parks’—that I should give up because I would not succeed in my protest," Phanachone said.
When she didn’t cave, the administrators went higher up on the food chain. Superintendent Paul Tedesco took a hardline approach; he compared Panachone’s suspension for refusing to take the test to suspending a student for not removing an offensive T-shirt at school. "When you refuse a command, that’s insubordination," Tedesco responded.
Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, thinks it is the command itself that is problematic. "It illustrates the fixation on testing in which school bureaucrats believe the test score is more important than real performance," he says.
Schools receive additional federal funds for students who are determined to have limited English proficiency, and if a school fails to administer a test to one of those students, it risks losing that funding. But according to the Iowa Legislature’s Code, Section 280.4, Panachone does not fit the definition of having limited English proficiency, which means Storm Lake High School may well have been abusing Panachone’s indication of Loa as the primary language spoken in her home in order to obtain the extra money in the first place.
"Storm Lake labeled me an English Language Learner when I enrolled without even bothering to test me. All I want is to continue my education without the school labeling me unfairly," said Phanachone.
Despite their own potential miscategorization, administrators used scare tactics, telling Phanachone that she was at risk of losing her scholarship money for college. But the teenager’s resolve is clear: "I want to fight this because this is what I believe. It’s wrong, not just for me, but for all minority students.”
Other students agreed and stepped up in her defense risking their own suspension by wearing T-shirts that read “Support Lori” and organizing a protest.
Administrators threatened to take from Phanachone other benefits of her hard work: denying her an opportunity to compete in National DECA events, participate on the track team and attend her senior prom. Despite assurances to the contrary, she received a letter stating she was kicked out the National Honors Society because she had failed to maintain the club’s "standards of scholarship, leadership, service and character." The membership was restored three days later after Khin Mai Aung, Phanachone’s lawyer from the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, called for her reinstatement.
Aung is also demanding a letter from the district guaranteeing that no further punishment will be doled out to the teenager and that references to her suspension from school be removed from her school record. He insisted the district issue an explanation of how Phanachone came to be classified as an English Language Learner upon enrollment, and that it should reclassify Phanachone and other students who have been inappropriately labeled.
The latter two of these demands have now been fulfilled.
In April, Phanachone was reclassified and it is believed that she will no longer be required to take the test. The explanation given by Tedesco was weak to non-existent: “With input from various sources including the state, building level administrators and the curriculum director … changes can be made at any time throughout a school year … in any of our curriculum areas, which would include the ELL program.”
Phanachone is quick to clarify that this is not an attack on English as a Second Language or English Language Learner programs. "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," she said.
Mandy Van Deven is a freelance writer and founder of the Feminist Review blog.