A Meeting of the Minds on Assessing ELLs

By Mary Ann Zehr — January 11, 2010 3 min read
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The consortia that are awarded federal Race to the Top money to create assessments based on common standards should consider the needs of English-language learners up front, rather than as an after-thought, several researchers on such students told federal education officials at a forum in Denver last month. The forum is the only public event I’m aware of in which the U.S. Department of Education has focused on the education of ELL students since Barack Obama became president, unless one counts the public hearing that the governing board for the National Assessment of Educational Progress held on how best to include ELLs in the nation’s report card.

Federal education officials invited to the Mile High City on Dec. 2 three of the most well-known researchers on testing of ELLs: Jamal Abedi, a professor of education at the University of California, Davis; Charlene Rivera, the executive director of the Center for Equity and Excellence in Education at George Washington University; and Robert Linquanti, a senior researcher at WestEd in San Francisco. I’ve just skimmed the 216-page transcript for the forum on ELLs, which the Education Department posted last week.

All of the researchers called for a number of dramatic changes in testing for ELLs. One of the most substantial would be for test developers to take into consideration students’ different levels of proficiency in English to determine how they would be tested and offered accommodations. Under current regulations, all ELLs must take their state’s math test the first time it is administered after they set foot in U.S. schools. And they must take their state’s reading test after they’ve been in U.S. schools for a year.

ELLs’ test scores in math and reading count for accountability purposes under the No Child Left Behind Act after they’ve been in U.S. schools for one year. A child’s proficiency level in English is not a factor now in federal policies for how ELLs should be included in testing.

Rivera suggested that English-language-proficiency tests could be used as “a proxy” for testing ELLs in reading, until those students have enough English skills to “meaningfully” take their state’s regular reading test. If you’ll remember, that’s exactly what New York and Virginia did for a few years until federal officials forbade them from giving an English-language-proficiency test to ELLs as a substitute for the state’s reading test. The federal officials said that all ELLs had to take the regular reading test.

Abedi suggested that test makers set a particular score on an English-language-proficiency test as an indicator that it would be valid for ELLs to take their state’s regular reading test. Abedi praised some of the English-language-proficiency tests being used by states, but said states’ content tests are lacking in how they address the needs of ELLs.

Linquanti said computer-adaptive tests might provide a good solution for testing ELLs who have low levels of English proficiency in academic content. In such tests, a computer would select questions appropriate for a student’s particular language-proficiency level.

Linquanti said both states’ content standards and the national common core standards need to better spell out the kinds of language competence needed to master various subject areas. He and the other two researchers said the nation still needs separate English-language-proficiency standards, but that there needs to be better alignment between such standards and English/language arts standards.

One of the public commentators at the forum, Ellen Forte, the president and founder of edCount, which has a $1.6 million Education Department grant to examine the validity of English-language proficiency standards and assessments, was more blunt in saying that the common core standards lack attention to the needs of ELLs.

“The decision to exclude language acquisition experts in the development of the first set of common core standards was shortsighted and insulting,” she said. She added: “Academic language proficiency affects the performance of all students, not just English-learners.”

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