High-Stakes Tests Jeopardizing Hispanics, Panel Warns
State leaders have compromised the educational future of Hispanic students by making high-stakes decisions based on "inaccurate and inadequate testing information," a presidential panel contends.
It recommends in a recent report that the office for civil rights of the U.S. Department of Education conduct an analysis to determine whether current testing practices for Hispanic students in the 50 states violate professional testing standards as well as federal laws barring discrimination.
The report, "Testing Hispanic Students in the United States: Technical and Policy Issues," was prepared by the assessment committee of the President's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans and released last month.
The panel says it supports standards-based school improvements because such policies promise to give all children access to a rigorous mainstream education. But it cautions that, with few exceptions, students bear the weight of academic success or failure on the basis of one or two test scores, whose results may be inaccurate for students with limited fluency in English.
"State policies often require that Hispanic students be assessed in English with tests they may not even understand or with alternative, but less rigorous, tests in Spanish whether or not they are receiving instruction in that language," the report says.
"While neither approach produces accurate information about student learning," it continues, "the resulting data is often used to hold students accountable for their own success, rather than the educators or the public school systems."
When it comes to holding schools accountable for results, the committee adds, the performance of more than 2 million Hispanic students is underrepresented or ignored because they may be exempted from state testing programs. "Where exemptions from testing exist, Hispanics disappear from the accountability reports," the committee says, "triggering both positive and negative consequences for the responsible adults in the system."
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By Oct. 1, states must submit evidence to the federal government that their testing systems meet the inclusion requirements under the Title I remedial education law. The law requires that state assessment systems include all students—those with limited English proficiency among them—and report results by subgroup.
But in a letter to the chief state school officers dated June 8, Michael Cohen, the Education Department's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, said early evidence indicates that few state policies and practices are in compliance with the rules on inclusion of students with limited command of English.
"It is our belief that Hispanic students, whether they are English-dominant or English-language learners, should be tested with appropriate test instruments in order to be included at all times in the states' accountability systems," the commission says in its report. "If this does not occur, Hispanic children will not benefit from the powerful and promising standards movement."
"Inclusion for accountability purposes is fine," agreed Charlene Rivera, the executive director of the Center for Excellence and Equity in Education at George Washington University. "I think that should be part of what happens in state reporting. When you start penalizing kids, that's a different story and needs to be carefully looked at," she said.
Norma V. Cantu, the assistant secretary in charge of the Education Department's civil rights office, described the report as a "very thoughtful analysis of how Hispanic students are evaluated." Last week, her office released the third draft of a resource guide for educators and policymakers on the legal and educational issues involved in using tests for high-stakes decisions about students. A final version of the report is expected in August. "So the timing of the report is useful," Ms. Cantu said.
But, she noted, "the guidance that we're preparing and are receiving comments on is intended to describe the state of the law that exists. We're not going to be preparing a projection of where we think the law is going." In addition, she said, a national review by her office of state testing practices "is not in the picture."
"When we initiate either a technical-assistance activity or an investigation, it's based on some really solid information that there's a reason our office should be in that school or college," she explained. "So we've heard that suggestion, but it's not how we do business."
The presidential commission's assessment committee identifies a number of practices that it believes harm Latino students or those still learning English.
In particular, it opposes the use of standardized tests that are translated from English into another language without conducting empirical studies to ensure that the test items have the same degree of difficulty in the native language.
"Translated tests should not be used," the committee maintains. "There is very little likelihood that the new translated test will have the same technical properties as the original, and there is a substantial likelihood that the translated test will not work. The practice of translating tests and of using their scores for making decisions about individuals should stop."
The report similarly exhorts against using interpreters who either translate a test into the student's primary language on the spot or help administer a test that has already been translated.
In addition, the report notes, many of the testing accommodations currently provided to English-language learners were devised to address the needs of students with disabilities and may not meet the particular linguistic needs of Hispanic youngsters. "One of the great historical mistakes in American education has been the tendency to perceive bilingualism as a handicap," the report says.
In the end, the committee asserts, the primary problem with testing systems is not the tests themselves but the educational context in which they are created and used. Until the public education of Hispanic students becomes more equitable and effective, the panel argues, "tests and test scores will continue to show massive technical problems of bias, differential treatments, and differential outcomes."
Vol. 19, Issue 42, Page 7Published in Print: July 12, 2000, as High-Stakes Tests Jeopardizing Hispanics, Panel Warns