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ACT to Offer Test Supports for English-Learners

By Catherine Gewertz — November 29, 2016 5 min read
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ACT Inc. has announced that it will begin offering accommodations for English-learners on the ACT, marking the first time that students with limited English proficiency will be able to request extra time and other supports on a national college-entrance exam.

Starting in fall 2017, students will be able to apply through their school counseling offices for several kinds of accommodations on the ACT. They can request as much as 50 percent more time than the three hours (or 3½ if students choose the essay) that are normally allowed for the exam. They can ask to use an approved bilingual glossary or to have test instructions read to them in their native language. They can also ask to take the test in a place that minimizes distractions, such as a separate room.

In the past, ACT has not offered accommodations based solely on a student’s English-learner status. The company decided to change course to eliminate any barriers that English proficiency might create when students take the exam.

The accommodations offer students “an opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned in school, leveling the playing field while not giving the students any special advantages,” ACT Chief Commercial Officer Suzana Delanghe said in a prepared statement when the company announced the change Nov. 14.

“ACT is taking an important step in the right direction to serve this underserved population,” said Robert Linquanti, one of the experts ACT consulted as it reshaped its accommodations practices. A senior researcher at WestEd, Linquanti helps policymakers design assessment and accountability systems for English-learners.

It’s important that ACT see its new offerings as only the first step, however, Linquanti said. Particularly at the high school level, English-learners are a very diverse population, he said. Some have mastered academic content in their native languages but are struggling with English. Others might lag further academically, and still others might have both a disability and linguistic challenges. To respond to those differing needs, ACT must conduct research to understand what kinds of accommodations work best for specific subgroups of English-learners, Linquanti said.

‘College-Reportable’ Scores

Providing accommodations could enable more students to receive ACT scores they can use in applying to college. Many students now can’t get “college-reportable” scores because ACT and the College Board refuse to approve the accommodations they have been using on classroom work and other tests.

That problem has come into sharp focus as more states require all students to take one of the college-entrance exams. Last year, 15 states mandated the ACT for all high school juniors, and six required the SAT.

The collision of those state requirements with the testing companies’ accommodations policies puts many students in a bind. Those who can’t get approval for their normal accommodations on a college-entrance exam must choose: Take the test without them and risk a lower score, or insist on their typical accommodations and accept that ACT or the College Board would not certify the resulting scores for use in college applications.

The College Board said it is working with states to offer more supports for English-learners and plans to make an announcement within a month.

How many English-learners will apply for, and receive, ACT’s new accommodations remains to be seen. But those who closely follow issues of testing accommodations called on the Iowa company to set up an approval process that enables easy access to the new accommodations.

“I really hope ACT will have an approval process that is transparent, clear, and that educators and states understand,” said Sheryl Lazarus, a senior research associate at the National Center on Educational Outcomes, which studies students learning English and those with disabilities.

ACT officials said that the accommodations could rectify another problem, too. They said they have “preliminary data suggesting that academic achievement of English-learners may be underreported under standard ACT test conditions,” according to the company’s statement.

That disclosure prompted both congratulations and concern. Lazarus and others applauded ACT for revealing the problem and trying to rectify it with supports. But they worried about what the underreporting means for students who’ve previously taken the test.

“I’m definitely concerned about what it could mean,” said Lazarus. “I encourage ACT to get more information out there so that we can all learn from it.”

A ‘Savvy Play’

Some observers surmised that ACT’s move could reflect its desire to keep or win the statewide and districtwide contracts that are a staple of its business. The company overtook its rival, the College Board, several years ago to become the nation’s most popular college-entrance test.

“It’s a very savvy play by ACT to position itself to say we are the better test to be used as your high school test, because we recognize the various levels of language proficiency, and we’ll provide a test that measures students’ skills and knowledge, not just their familiarity with the language,” said Ned Johnson, the president of PrepMatters, a Bethesda, Md., tutoring and test-preparation company.

Akil Bello, Princeton Review’s director of strategic initiatives in New York City, said ACT’s decision to offer accommodations to English-learners could be a “legit” response to its reputation as a test that’s hard for many students to finish in the allotted time—a challenge that can be deeper for English-learners.

Others said that the move could also help make the ACT, when used as a statewide high school test, align with the the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which requires English-learners to be assessed “in a valid and reliable manner and provided appropriate accommodations.” Draft regulations for the law say states must “ensure that the use of appropriate accommodations ... does not deny any student the opportunity to participate in the assessment or afford any benefit from such participation that is not equal to the benefit afforded to students who do not use such accommodations.”

ACT Inc. plans to do studies to verify that the scores of English-learners with accommodations are as valid and reliable as those of students who don’t use them, company spokesman Ed Colby said.

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