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N.Y.C. Test Sizes Up ELLs With Little Schooling

By Mary Ann Zehr — February 24, 2009 4 min read
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The New York City school district has rolled out what is believed to be the first academic diagnostic test in the country designed solely for English-language learners who have missed years of schooling.

The district has identified 15,500 out of its 148,000 English-language learners who are “students with interrupted formal education,” or SIFE. That subset of ELLs has grown rapidly over the past decade, with about 3,000 to 5,000 students entering the school system each school year. Students may have missed or stopped attending school in their home countries for a variety of reasons, including displacement by war, necessity to work, or inability to afford textbooks or school fees that many countries require even for public schools.

Maria Santos, who directs programs for ELLs in New York City, said in an e-mail message that the test is a tool for identifying SIFE when such children enter the school system. The test “will provide teachers with more information about each student and shape the instructional services these students receive,” she said.

Called Academic Language and Literacy Diagnostic, the test was crafted by Elaine C. Klein and Gita Martohardjono, linguists at the City University of New York Queens College and graduate center. They devised it as part of a research study on SIFE begun in 2005, paid for by the New York City Department of Education. The department has also hired researchers to study “long-term English-language learners,” which it defines as ELLs who have spent at least six years in the city’s programs to learn English. (“English-Learners Pose Policy Puzzle,” Quality Counts, January 8, 2009.)

Ms. Klein and Ms. Martohardjono, who followed 98 SIFE for 1½ years starting in 2006, are among only a few researchers in the country who have focused on this group of English-language learners. They recently presented their findings in a paper at an education conference in Uruguay and hope to publish them in a U.S. publication. All the students in the study spoke Spanish as their first language.

Cognitive Abilities

A key finding of the research is that the SIFE didn’t have a higher incidence of special learning needs than is true for all students. In assessing students’ abilities to speak and understand Spanish, the researchers found the students’ cognitive abilities were fine.

Ms. Klein said in a telephone interview that she hopes the finding may change the way schools in New York City address the educational needs of students whose formal education was interrupted.

“We feel very strongly, that SIFE don’t need remediation. They need acceleration. They are motivated,” said Ms. Klein. “Because some of them can’t write their names and they can’t read anything, a lot of people in schools assume they are cognitively impaired, and they put them in special education. We’ve always felt that was a real misplacement, but we didn’t know for sure.”

She said the study of 98 SIFE shows that their memory skills and oral-language development are normal.

The Academic Language and Literacy Diagnostic for SIFE is actually two tests—a math and reading test, considered the “core test,” that can be administered to SIFE in pre-K to 12th grade, and a preliteracy test. The preliteracy test is given only if students can’t do the beginning-reading section of the core test. Right now, the test is available only in English and Spanish, but the researchers hope to develop versions in other languages as well, such as Chinese and Haitian Creole.

The New York City school system has distributed 5,000 copies of the core test. It hasn’t yet gathered data about how many SIFE have taken it. The test is given only to English-language learners entering grades 6-12 who report during an oral questionnaire, also devised by the researchers, that they have missed more than two years of formal education.

Ms. Klein said the New York City system is the first in the country to commission a test specifically for SIFE.

Yvonne Freeman, a bilingual education professor at the University of Texas, Brownsville, who has studied such students, said she doesn’t know of any other district that has administered such a test.

Ms. Freeman said she hadn’t heard of anyone else who has tested SIFE in oral Spanish and determined that they didn’t have learning issues. She said it was interesting and important as well that the researchers had addressed the needs of SIFE by providing support in their first language.

The research project included the implementation of interventions to help SIFE catch up with their peers, such as instruction in Spanish, but Ms. Klein said no conclusions could be drawn about the effectiveness of the interventions because about half the students dropped out of the study or left school over the course of the study.

During the 18-month study, the researchers compared the academic progress of SIFE and regular ELLs who hadn’t missed school. “We saw that the regular English-learners, not the SIFE group, improved in English reading skills immediately, and SIFE were very low,” Ms. Klein said.

At the same time, the SIFE group improved in Spanish by a grade and a half over 1½ years of schooling. Ms. Klein said the research team is attributing the poor progress in English skills among SIFE to the fact that they lack literacy skills in their native language. But, she added, “We can’t prove it.”

One question to try to answer with future research, said Ms. Klein, is to what degree native-language support is helpful for SIFE, and if it is necessary. A second important question, she said, is to what extent such students should be integrated or separated from other English-language learners for instruction. “If you do separate them,” she said, “because they have a lot of catching up to do, for how long should it be and for what skills?”

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