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Better Testing Policies for LEP Students Advised

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Phoenix

States that require students to pass a test to get a high school diploma need to address more carefully the needs of students with limited proficiency in English, a recent study concludes.

And testing officials should curb the now-common practice of allowing such students to delay taking exit exams, the report says, because such a deferral also postpones extra help the student might otherwise have received based on a poor showing on the exam.

The study on the 17 states that require high-stakes graduation tests was released here late last month at the Council of Chief State School Officers' annual national conference on large-scale assessment.

Charlene Rivera, the director of George Washington University's Center for Equity and Excellence in Education, located in Arlington, Va., and Carolyn Vincent, a research associate at the center, piggybacked their questions onto a 1994 annual survey of testing directors conducted by the Washington-based CCSSO and the North Central Regional Education Laboratory in Illinois. Some of the results, which generally apply to the 1993-94 school year, were rechecked early this year.

For years, according to the study, limited-English-proficient students have been excluded from statewide assessment programs or tested inappropriately. But the study's authors say this growing population of students--who make up, for example, nearly one-quarter of California's K-12 enrollment--should no longer be ignored.

The survey found that all 17 of the states that have mandatory high school exit exams require LEP students to pass the test--or pursue an alternative means of demonstrating their skills--to get a standard diploma, regardless of their level of mastery of English. In Louisiana, however, any student who enters high school as a junior or a senior, such as a recent immigrant, may be exempted from a graduation test and still receive a diploma.

States cope with the challenge of giving a graduation test to LEP students in a variety of ways, the survey found.

Thirteen of the 17 states allow modifications to the way the exam is administered to students with limited facility in English. Eleven states allow the students to take extra time, for example, and more than half the states allow the test to be administered separately to a small group.

Some states allow students to use dictionaries, and three states--Florida, New Mexico, and Ohio--allow questions to be read aloud in English and in a student's native language.

New Mexico and New York allow at least a part of the test to be given in a language other than English. And four states--Hawaii, New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York--permit local districts to use alternative assessments, such as portfolios of student work.

More Research Needed

Ms. Rivera warned that modifications to the tests should be used judiciously. States need to set clear policies for the use of modifications, she said, so that local educators can determine whether they would be helpful or appropriate for individual students.

The study also recommends that states create tests in students' native languages. Such testing is appropriate, the authors say, when students have received instruction in a given subject area in their native language, either in another country or in a bilingual program in the United States.

The report also calls for alternative assessments, such as portfolios, that are aligned with instruction.

The researchers found that information on the number of LEP students who take state-required tests is scant and that states have not assessed the impact of their testing policies on such students. The report calls for more research and data collection, including an evaluation of the extent to which all students have access to the content on the tests. It also calls for teasing apart test data to determine whether racial, socioeconomic, or other factors are related to performance.

With the current policy move nationwide to include all students in instruction and assessments based on high academic standards, the survey results offer a "window to understanding what the prospects are for LEP kids," Ms. Rivera said.

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