California Isn’t Testing Young ELLs in English Literacy

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 27, 2007 2 min read
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I called Deb Sigman, the assessment director for the California Department of Education, recently to find out more about the Spanish-language test that the state is launching for some English-language learners. You can read more about that in this week’s issue of Education Week. During the same conversation I thought to ask whether California ever developed a test in reading and writing for English-learners in kindergarten and 1st grade to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act.

It turns out that California has not done so--and, as a result, is receiving federal funds for English-language learners under Title III of NCLB only under “special conditions.” In a document spelling out those conditions, the federal government calls California’s failure to test English-learners on reading and writing in kindergarten and 1st grade a “violation.” The document designates California as a “high-risk grantee” for federal Title III funds, though it doesn’t define what that means, and it requires the state to report regularly (a California Department of Education staffer said quarterly) on progress in correcting the violation.

More than two years have passed since I wrote about how the California state board of education sought a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education from having to create a literacy test for little kids who are English-language learners. The U.S. Department of Education rejected the request. Since then, said Ms. Sigman, the California legislature has been holding up the process of creating a test. Twice the legislature has rejected bills that would permit the California Department of Education to proceed. Ms. Sigman plans to testify on April 11 before the state’s Senate Education Committee to try to get legislators to approve a bill that would permit the department of education to move forward. Some legislators, she said, believe a literacy test would be too much of a burden for young English-learners.

When I learned about this issue a couple of years ago, I wondered why the federal government finds it so important to test such young children in reading and writing when they haven’t yet really learned to read and write. Why isn’t testing them in listening and speaking in English--as California already does--in those early grades enough? A federal education official told me then that testing young ELLs in literacy provides useful information for teachers. I found out the tests don’t really test what many of us think of as “reading and writing"; they test pre-literacy skills, such as whether children know to read English on the page from left to right, and can recognize sounds and letters.

At the same time, some educators complain that NCLB requires an extra layer of testing for English-learners. Like all other children, they have to be tested in mathematics and reading in grades 3-8 and once in high school. But English-learners also must be assessed in their reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills in English in grades K-12 every year. For more on this in Education Week, click here.

I’d like to hear from readers about how the tests in English-language proficiency are working out for kindergartners and 1st graders. Do you feel they are a waste of time? Do you feel they provide useful information that can be used to improve instruction?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.