The Causes of Low Test Scores for ELLs?

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 24, 2008 2 min read
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John Brezinsky, over at ESOL Trend Watch, sponsored by Pearson Longman, spells out what could be the causes for why English-language learners have low test scores. See “Schools Score Low--Cite ESL Students.” Also see my earlier blog entry, “Expect to Hear This Story Over and Over and Over Again.”

I’d like to see more documentation behind some of his conclusions, and I think he’s missing one possible “cause” that experts in the field often cite: that the tests ELLs are taking are designed for native-English speakers and are not very good at measuring what second-language learners know and can do.

Mr. Brezinsky says that many schools don’t have dedicated instruction for English-language learners. “Rather,” he writes, “teachers come into the classroom and help individual students during the flow of the mainstream class.”

I’d like to know more about why he thinks schools aren’t providing intensive English instruction for ELLs, though this may be true.

I have seen at least one report of an individual school district, the Seattle Public Schools, that says that some ELLs aren’t receiving special services. But, it’s hard to say how widespread that is. Also, I’m not sure that it’s a common practice for teachers to visit mainstream classrooms to work with individual ELLs. And that may be an effective method, though Mr. Brezinsky implies it isn’t. The St. Paul School District is trying to demonstrate the push-in approach is effective, anyway.

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a national study of practices schools are using for ELL instruction since Sept. 2003. According to that study, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, 11.7 percent of ELLs received no special services to learn English, 36.4 percent received some services, and 52 percent received extensive services (See Volume I, Research Report, page IX).

Also, Mr. Brezinsky writes that some states limit English-as-a-second-language instruction to students in lower grades, as if older students don’t need the same kind of special help. “Others,” he says, “limit the number of years that a student can take language classes to some arbitrary length of time.”

Georgia, in fact, does the opposite. It gives schools more of its state funding for educating ELLs at the higher grades than the lower grades. Is Mr. Brezinsky talking about official state policies or just what he thinks is tending to happen in some states? If he’s talking about actual state policies, I’d like to see him name the states that have them.

Mr. Brezinsky may be on target with his “causes,” but I’d like to see a few more facts or examples to support his observations.

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