Unless remedied, the violations could lead to a loss of federal funding for education in Arizona.
One of the complaints alleges that the Arizona Department of Education has reclassified "many thousands" of children as proficient in English even though tests indicate they aren't. The U.S. Departments of Education and Justice concluded this deprives students of services they need to succeed.
The federal agencies found that Arizona violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prevents discrimination by government agencies that receive federal funding. A loss of federal funding is a penalty for a violation of Title VI.
The federal officials proposed an agreement calling for Arizona to come up with a more effective way to test and reclassify students who need special instruction in English. The reclassifications come after students take tests to demonstrate English proficiency. The Arizona English Language Learner Assessment, or AZELLA, and the scoring of it "deem students proficient in English even when they are not proficient in each language domain," investigators found.
Once students are deemed proficient in English, educators "exit them from all ELL services," which violates their right to equal educational access.
Under the proposal, a temporary plan for English language learners would go into effect during the first semester of 2011-12 and a permanent plan during the second semester.
In the second complaint, the federal departments found that the state eliminated two questions from its home-language survey in 2009. The result was that students who are eligible for English-language services "are not being served because they are not being identified," investigators determined.
The findings come as federal agencies have launched a probe into whether Arizona's Education Department has discriminated against teachers who are not native English speakers.
Tom Horne, state superintendent of public instruction, said Thursday that the state Department of Education is working with federal investigators on the home-language survey.
"We're not going to change it back, but we're negotiating with them," he said. "We won't change it back, but we might make changes that will satisfy their needs and our needs."
Horne also said he is working with federal officials to evaluate the test Arizona educators used to classify ELL students as proficient in English.
Arizona buys the test from one of three companies that devise them, he said. He said the state is trying "to see what, if anything, needs to be done to satisfy what they need without compromising our principles."
Mary Lou Mobley, director of the U.S. Department of Education's Enforcement Office in Denver, which issued the findings, could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Molly Edwards, spokeswoman for the Arizona Attorney General's Office, which represents the state Education Department, declined to comment on any penalties the state could face.
Horne said the recent federal findings are part of ongoing attacks against Arizona ever since it passed Senate Bill 1070, a tough anti-illegal-immigration law.
"I do think this is a lot of nonsense we're dealing with over 1070" and a report by U.N. human-rights experts condemning the law, Horne said.
"This is why I'm running for attorney general, because we need someone to fight against these things," he said.
Meanwhile, Horne's office is defending itself against a long-running federal court case involving Arizona's approach to teaching English-language learners.
Tim Hogan, executive director for the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, said the federal government's recent findings against Arizona regarding policies for ELL students bolsters his argument that the state isn't treating all students fairly as required by the Equal Educational Opportunities Act and Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The home-language survey and the reclassification of ELL students have "artificially reduced the number of kids the state is counting as English-language learners," Hogan said.
The department's test also "allows students to move on even though they are not proficient in English," he added.