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ELL Testing: A State of Flux

Districts grapple with federal mandates and assessment options for English Language Learners.

By 2030, almost half the population in the United States will speak a language other than English, meaning the number of English Language Learners (ELLs) in schools nationwide will also increase. And critics of the federal No Child Left Behind law say that federal requirements of ELLs hurt school districts.

At Lawrence (Mass.) Public Schools, where 90 percent of the students are immigrants, the district has been labeled "inneed of improvement" under the NCLB requirements. Th is is in part due to the number of ELLs who haven't shown sufficient progress in mastering English and the number of ELLs who failed yearly benchmark tests in reading and math. "Let's just be honest and say the truth about what we're up against," says Lawrence Public Schools Superintendent Wilfredo T. Laboy. "We have a moral, ethical and professional responsibility to make sure that all kids who leave our system are profi cient learners. Nothing less than that is accepted, and failure is not an option."

Like many educators, Laboy applauds NCLB for casting a spotlight on ELLs, but he and many other educators question exactly how the law is applied to such students. They say the law unfairly penalizes districts like Lawrence with large numbers of ELLs. Meanwhile, states and districts are still devising ways to refi ne or revise tests for such students and searching for ways to help them become proficient in English as quickly as possible.

NCLB Requirements

Under Title III of NCLB, states must give all ELLs a yearly English proficiency test and must meet annual achievement objectives to improve the scores of ELLs in fi ve areas: speaking, reading, writing, listening and comprehension. The goal is to meet the same challenging state academic content and student achievement standards as other, non-ELL students.

In addition, all students, including the vast majority of ELLs who are in the United States longer than a year, must also take yearly achievement tests in math, reading and, beginning this school year, science from third to eighth grade and once in high school. Schools and districts must show Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in students' achievement on those tests, with the ultimate goal of having all students be profi cient in reading and math by 2014. AYP, progress in English and attainment of English are three components of the Annual Measurable Achievement Objectives, or AMAOs, of NCLB.

Meanwhile, state tests show ELLs' performance is generally 20 to 30 percent below that of non-ELL students, according to the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student testing at UCLA (CRESST). As the law comes up for reauthorization this year, legislators are already proposing giving schools more time for ELLs to achieve test standards and having schools avoid harsh penalties when they fail to meet the standards due to their large numbers of ELLs.

Most educators seem to agree that a large infl ux of immigrants means that it's increasingly important that ELLs become profi cient enough in English to receive a good education. Nationwide, 3.8 million children, or 11 percent of all school children, received ELL services in 2003, according to the latest statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Stereotyping ELLs?

Sanctions, such as giving students options to attend school in another district, for failure to meet AYP goals have meant that districts must improve performance with after-school programs, intensive sheltered English or bilingual or preschool programs to teach non-English speaking children English before they even begin school.

"Basically, I think that NCLB has had a very dramatic eff ect on the education of English Language Learners in the U.S.," says John Segota, advocacy and communications manager for Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), based in Alexandria, Va.

But TESOL is among those groups that believe NCLB should be revised so that ELLs and districts with those students are treated more fairly. TESOL and other groups, for example, take issue with lumping all ELLs into one subgroup. They point out that ELLs are an extremely diverse group comprised of students from dozens of languages and educational backgrounds. Th ey also note that such groups are constantly changing because new students are moving into the United States and entering the group and, at the same time, the most proficient ELLs are taken out of the subgroup and mainstreamed.

"To expect gains isn't realistic because the subgroup is always being replenished by new English Language Learners," explains Margo Gottlieb, director of assessment and evaluation for the Illinois Resource Class instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) consortium, a group of 15 states that has developed English language proficiency standards as well as an English proficiency assessment.

A national study of NCLB requirements for ELLs by Jamal Abedi and Ron Dietel of CRESST found that the "instability" of the subgroup results in "downward pressure in ELL test scores worsened by the addition of ELL students who are typically low-achieving."

Expecting the same yearly gains for all students also isn't realistic because, like all students, ELLs learn at diff erent rates. Other factors influence how well a student learns English. Studies by CRESST have found that language mastery is in part based on how well students have mastered their own language, family income level, and how educated their parents are.

In Princeton (N.J.) Regional Schools, for example, many ELLs are the children of visiting professors, most of whom are from Europe. Coming from well-educated homes with good educational backgrounds, they do much better than other ELLs from Mexico and Guatemala who may miss school to work and help support their families financially.

Regulations allow ELLs who are deemed profi cient to be counted in the group for the following two years, but that is not enough to accurately measure improvement, critics say. New immigrants are allowed to wait one year before taking the yearly achievement tests in reading, but they must still take the math and science achievement tests and the English proficiency test during their first school year.

Districts can opt not to report the achievement test scores. Most ELLs must be tested, and their scores reported, in reading, math and science in the second year after arriving in the United States, with accommodations that can range from having more time to take the test, to being allowed to take the test in Spanish, or taking a modified test.

ELL Benchmark Tests Unfair?

Still, testing ELLs in academic subjects is problematic since all tests, even math, involve reading or comprehending some English. But testing students in Spanish or French or any other language only makes sense if they learn the subject matter in Spanish or French or their native language through a bilingual education program, Gottlieb explains.

"The assessments are not valid assessments of what the students know," says Raquel Sinai, coordinator for bilingual and English as a Second Language education for the New Jersey Department of Education. "They're basically putting them into an assessment situation where some of these kids have no opportunity to show mastery because they're very recent arrivals and it's a very difficult situation for the districts as well as for the kids."

New Jersey, which has 65,000 ELLs, uses WIDA's Access for ELL's test for English language profi ciency and a few different tests for its yearly achievement tests. But despite accommodations such as extra time, using a bilingual dictionary, and having directions translated into Spanish, large numbers of ELLs fail the achievement tests. That means many schools in New Jersey's large urban districts fail to meet the state's standards under NCLB, Sinai says.

"The assessments are not valid assessments
of  what the students know."
-Raquel Sinai, coordinator for bilingual and English as a Second Language education,
New Jersey Department of Education

"It's an unfair assessment because it's not assessing students on their knowledge of that content," says Teddi Predaris, director of the office of English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) services for Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools. "It really just becomes another English language proficiency test."

States Seek Best Assessments Meanwhile, many states are determining which tests are best for assessing ELLs' English language profi ciency and how to handle benchmark tests for ELLs.

About 20 states use off -the-shelf tests offered by national testing companies that can becustomized, such as CTB/McGraw-Hill's LAS-Links and the IDEA Proficiency Test (IPT) off ered by Ballard-Tighe. Another 23 states use tests, or questions from tests, developed by four consortia that were funded by the U.S. Department of Education just for that purpose, according to the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs. Th e Clearinghouse is federally funded and collects, analyzes and disseminates information about the education of ELLs. Fourteen states use their own individual tests.

"I think the educational world is kind of waiting for guidance right now," says Gottlieb. When NCLB was fi rst legislated, most states didn't have tests except at benchmark levels, she says.

Districts must also assess students' language abilities when they enter the school system and over the school year. Districts use various assessments for placement and to aid ESL teachers. Some assessments are computerized and can be tailored to each district or school's needs and can give immediate feedback on students' progress.

In Virginia, a special committee is reviewing the English proficiency tests to find one that best aligns with its content standards, says Predaris, a committee member. Meanwhile, districts statewide can choose from approved tests such as the Stanford English Language Proficiency test (SELP) or the Fairfax County district's English language proficiency assessment.

LAS-Links in Nevada

LAS-Links in Nevada such as LAS-Links to assess English language proficiency. The oral part of the test is individually administered by trained teachers or staff . CTB trains district leaders and provides DVDs that offer a rubric for teachers and staff to score tests consistently, explains Steven Ross, Nevada's Title III consultant. CTB also scores all but the oral section of the test.

Nevada's goals include 100 percent profi ciency for Level V, the most proficient ELLs. Achieving that goal has proven impossible, and state officials are considering modifying those standards. "If you have one kid in the whole state who fails, I don't make my AMAO," Ross explains. When districts fail to meet the standards, state offi cials must choose whether they should replace personnel with new administrators or modify their curriculum to improve the ELLs' performance, Ross explains. More often, replacing personnel does not make sense, so the state will likely ask districts to modify their curricula for ELLs. This would involve implementing one of the 18 elements from the state's Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP), for example, offering specifi c goals or content objectives for class lessons that are written at children's grade levels and posted in classrooms. Teachers could then review the goals with each class after the lesson.

Seeking Growth Assessment

In Lawrence, Mass., ELLs must take the Massachusetts English Proficiency Assessment and the statewide Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Systems test (MCAS). To prepare for those tests, ELLs are evaluated three times a year-in September, February and May-using the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test developed by the Northwest Evaluation Association, one of the consortiums. MAP provides individualized results for each student, Laboy says. The district also uses Plato software, which has individualized computer math programs in Spanish and language programs for ELLs.

Laboy, who was the coordinator of bilingual education in New York about 20 years ago, says he would like to see a growth assessment that tracks students from year to year, instead of the law's mandate of keeping track of a different set of students every year. "I will put my salary on the line that if you give me a growth measure, I will tell you we will meet AYP every year." The stakes become particularly high when ELLs must pass the MCAS to graduate from high school. Some students wind up taking the test up to five times to try to pass, and many end up dropping out.

Although Massachusetts, like many states, does not allow bilingual education, Lawrence off ers a structured English immersion program with a Spanish program the first year a student arrives. Every teacher in Lawrence is being trained in ESL techniques.

Lawrence also off ers an extended school day to ELLs in which students stay after school for 90 minutes. Students can take part in a peer-tutoring program and attend the Summer Program for English Language Learners (SPELL). Newly arrived students receive double blocks of English, math and science in intensive English courses. Meanwhile, six out of Lawrence's 24 schools are still in "corrective action," which means those schools may have to restructure their academic programs or change leadership, such as by replacing principals. And Laboy, like many educators, complains the federal government provides no aditional resources to help hire reading specialists.

Preschool and Other Tests

Preschool children in Maricopa, Ariz., are assessed for their English and language skills using Children's Progress, a company that provides computerized assessments for pre-K and kindergarten children. Th e company has similar assessments up to grade 3. And in Rogers (Ark.) Public Schools, where 3,700 ELLs speak 30 languages, from Urdu to Hindi, and comprise about 28 percent of all the students, administrators are struggling with what ELL assessment will be aligned with the statewide English Language Development Assessment (ELDA) from the Council of Chief State School Officers.


Students who are Level I and do not speak English are placed in sheltered English immersion classes. In the upper grades, a newcomer team for new students offers five core classes with ESOL teachers. Students in grades 8-12 take elective courses and then attend an English academy in core subjects including algebra, language development and physical sciences.

In the end, Congress will decide whether to revise NCLB's requirements. But most educators seem to agree that ELLs must learn English to be successful. "I think we have to do better for these kids," Laboy says. "English is the language of power and success in America.