Special Report

More Testing Is Forecast for Nation’s ELL Students

By Corey Mitchell — May 24, 2017 6 min read
Students in the District of Columbia’s International Academy at Cardozo Education Campus, immigrants from Central America and Asia, work on an assignment in history class.

At a time when Congress wants to scale back K-12 testing requirements, the Every Student Succeeds Act could do just the opposite for one group of students—those who don’t yet communicate fluently in English.

To ensure consistent monitoring of English-language learners, federal education law now requires annual English-language-proficiency assessments. States must also standardize criteria for identifying English-learners and for reclassifying them when they no longer need support services.

The significance of English-learners is on the rise as this population grows and the changes in federal law that suggest a more precise look at how those students are performing in school are a reflection of that, advocates and experts say.

“ESSA has basically set a different way of looking at the bar, and now people are trying to catch up to that,” said H. Gary Cook, the director of research for the World Class Instructional Design and Assessment, or WIDA, consortium, a group of education agencies that share English-language proficiency standards and assessments for English-language learners that are aligned with the Common Core State Standards.

Even though Congress voted to block the accountability rules for the Every Student Succeeds Act created by the Obama administration, many states are still using those regulations—including the recommendation that states not use academic content assessment to measure English proficiency—as well-vetted guidance.

The changes could lead more states to lean almost exclusively on English-language-proficiency exams to determine when the students no longer need the extra aid.

Figuring out whether students need extra English support and when they no longer require it are crucial for the success of English-learners.

When reclassification occurs too early, English-learners can find themselves struggling without the support services they need. If the process happens too late, students may be restricted from taking higher-level courses that would prepare them for college.

And the back end of the process can be subjective, even when standards are established.

Before Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, close to 30 states were already relying solely on the results of a single testing benchmark.

That reliance on test results could accelerate if an early look at accountability plans that states submitted to the Education Department is any indication. Of the 13 states that submitted accountability plans to the U.S. Department of Education by the end of April, a majority used a single assessment as their exit criteria for English-learners.

Challenges Ahead

A few of the other states left their English-learner accountability sections blank as they work to figure out how to ensure that schools are educating ELLs.

Educators and researchers have raised questions about using a high-stakes assessment as the sole determinant of English-learners’ educational progress.

“States are really grappling with how to account for their [English-learner] populations,” said Jessica Rodriguez Boudreau, the education outreach manager with the National Council of La Raza. “There are concerns because states are clearly trying to figure out how to do this well.”

Prior to the new law, most states had a patchwork of entry and exit procedures including classroom observations and norm-referenced achievement tests. The new law aims to make policies more consistent.

But could standardization also serve as a roadblock to progress?

Some English-learner advocates say educators who work directly with English-language learners should play a major role in determining when, and if, the students no longer need the specialized services. Prior to the change in law, only 15 states used teacher input or evaluation.

Before the passage of ESSA, Georgia was among just six states that factored English-language acquisition into their statewide accountability systems. The state uses the WIDA consortium’s ACCESS for ELLs to measure English-learner progress.

Factoring in other measures complicates an already-complex matter, said Allison Timberlake, the director of accountability at the Georgia education department.

“This metric has worked for our educators,” Timberlake said. “We want to make sure we stick with something that will support students and not just be a complex calculation that no one will understand and then basically ignore.”

A recent change to the WIDA assessment could complicate the transition for some states.

Designed to reflect the new language demands in college- and career-ready standards being adopted by states across the country, the new assessment, ACCESS 2.0, has raised the bar for English-language proficiency.

The change has forced English-learners to demonstrate more sophisticated language skills to achieve the same proficiency level scores.

“It really gives muscle to this assessment and accountability, which was off on a lunar surface … in the old law,” said Robert Linquanti, the project director for English Learner Evaluation and Accountability Support at WestEd, a San Francisco-based research organization.

In Colorado, where about 14 percent of students are identified as English-learners, state leaders aim to set “reasonable and thoughtful targets,” said Alyssa Pearson, the chief accountability officer for the state education department.

Colorado and Georgia are among 35 states that belong to the WIDA Consortium.

With more exacting standards in place, students’ scores could dip, extending the time some remain in English-learner support services.

The states with accountability plans without long-term goals for English-language learners probably lack them because the standards for English proficiency and the tests that measure how well students are learning the language are changing.

“It’s a negotiation to try and sort out where the sweet spot is for a state,” said Cook, the director of research for WIDA. “That varies based on state policy … what do we mean by English proficient, how do we support these students?”

Some experts and advocates worry that the reclassification process could remain inconsistent, despite the change in federal law.

WIDA is advising member states as they seek to establish new exit criteria goals. Finding that so-called sweet spot could prove tricky: Set the bar too high and students are kept in English-learner services too long, set the bar too low and they could struggle to make the transition.

Research from the federal Regional Education Laboratory at WestEd has found that middle and high school-age English-language learners who are deemed English-proficient still often struggle to grasp math and English/language arts lessons.

In acknowledgement of that, ESSA requires states to monitor former English-learners for four years, two years longer than the previous law required.

Looking Ahead

A 2015 Education Commission of the States report—completed before the passage of the new federal law—makes the case that changes in the law should elevate the status of each state’s English-language-learner coordinator, said Micah Ann Wixom, a policy analyst with the organization.

English-learners face some of the steepest odds of earning a high school diploma and attending college.

The new provisions in ESSA could be seen as acknowledgment from Congress that the nation’s K-12 schools must do more to meet the needs of English-learners, who are 10 percent of students nationwide.

“It puts a spotlight on the needs of these students,” said Scott Sargrad, the managing director of the K-12 education policy team for the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank. "[Their performance] is consequential.”

While promising outcomes are possible, advocates are worried about potential pitfalls.

Even a report that Linquanti co-authored for the Council of Chief State School Officers concludes that states should use at least two measures, including observations of how students use language in the classroom settings, to determine whether a student is ready to exit English-learner services.

“A lot of this is going to come down to how motivated states are, and how thoughtful they are,” Linquanti said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 24, 2017 edition of Education Week as More Testing On the Horizon For Nation’s ELL Students

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