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Finding New Solutions for ELL Assessments

Current assessments have been criticized because they are said to be unfair for ELL students. Enhanced Assessment Grants are aimed at curbing this academic impasse.

"We are knowingly administering tests to children that we know cannot do well on them because they don't speak English," says Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), echoing the concerns of many administrators nationwide regarding assessment tests for English language learners (ELLs).

The current assessments—which were partially exacerbated by the high stakes standards set by the No Child Left Behind act—have been criticized because they are said to be unfair because students aren't given adequate time to become fluent in English before being assessed. Their low performance, says Domenech, impacts not only a school's annual yearly progress (AYP), but also the child's self esteem. "We are subjecting them to failure unnecessarily," says Domenech.

Enhanced Assessment Grants, issued by the Department of Education for the fiscal 2009 year, are aimed at curbing this academic impasse. Illinois is one of seven states to receive this funding to improve the validity of state assessments, specifically for ELL students. The 23-state World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment Consortium (WIDA) is the subcontractor of Illinois' grant and is developing Spanish-language development standards for K12 students and reliable Spanish-language proficiency-assessment systems for grades K-2. Another WIDA initiative is Access for ELLs, which is a set of tests designed to measure ELL students' growth in English.

"Giving a student that doesn't read and write English special accommodations, such as extra time or a bilingual dictionary, doesn't actually level the playing field," says Tim Boals, executive director of the WIDA consortium. "The tests we design won't have those issues."

Domenech suggests that student observations or having students write essays in their native language are other assessment options.

In addition to fair assessments, Carlos Garcia, superintendent of San Francisco (Calif.) Public Schools and president of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS), suggests that reestablishing the Office of Bilingual Education under the Department of Education and encouraging parental involvement would provide much needed support for ELL students.

"These tests are totally unfair," says Garcia. "It shows how ethnocentric we are if we're only willing to value test responses in English. Knowledge is knowledge."