Federal

Questions Arise Over Grants for ELL Tests

By Lesli A. Maxwell — November 15, 2011 4 min read
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While a group of 28 states forges ahead to develop a new generation of English-language proficiency tests, important questions have arisen about how the language needs of millions more English-learners living in the rest of the country will be met under the common-core academic standards.

Earlier this fall, a consortium of 28 states led by the Wisconsin education department was selected as the only winner of a $10.5 million competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Education to create new assessments of English-language proficiency that will measure the language demands of the common standards. The Wisconsin-led group is collaborating with the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment Consortium, or WIDA, to develop the technology-based exams that its designers say will offer a much fuller picture of how English-learners are progressing toward mastering the language.

California Group Rejected

At the same time the Education Department awarded the Wisconsin consortium—which is home to about 1 million ELLs—it rejected a proposal from a second consortium of states led by California that also would have devised new assessments for ELLs. There is no clear effort underway now to craft new proficiency exams for the more than 2.5 million English-language learners who live in California, Arizona, Florida, and the 15 other states in that consortium.

Deborah V.H. Sigman, the deputy state superintendent for the California education department, called the decision to award only the Wisconsin consortium “very disappointing.” More than half the nation’s English-learners live in the 18 states that were part of the California consortium.

“Turning your back on that large a population, we were disappointed and somewhat dismayed,” Ms. Sigman said. “We thought we had an application that was responsible and would have provided an unprecedented opportunity to have all these states that have not worked together in the past collaborating on these important issues.”

The California consortium had partnered with the Council of Chief State School Officers to create the new tests. CCSSO officials declined to comment.

Education Department officials declined to answer detailed questions about the outcome of the grant competition. In an email, Jim Bradshaw, an Education Department spokesman, wrote that “expert reviewers reviewed and rated each eligible application to provide recommendations to the secretary [of education]. As a result of the competition, one award to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction was made in September 2011.”

Through the grant competition, the Education Department aimed to spur collaboration among states to design a new generation of English-language-proficiency exams that are in line with the common academic standards, which have now been adopted by all but four states. A goal of the process was to push states to agree on a common definition of which students are English-learners and the criteria they must meet to be reclassified as English-proficient. English-proficiency tests measure student progress in learning to speak, listen, read, and write in English. They are used by most schools to screen students for ELL services and determine when they no longer require such instruction.

English-language learners, who number more than 5 million nationwide, are the fastest-growing student group in the nation.

One English-language assessment expert said having two different groups of states working on the design of new tests for ELLs would have been much better than just one.

“It would be better for the entire field and, ultimately, for students, to have more colleagues and competition working on this to push the thinking,” said Robert Linquanti, a senior research associate for WestEd, a San Francisco-based education research and development organization. Mr. Linquanti is listed as an advisor to both the Wisconsin- and California-led efforts.

Ms. Sigman said it was not clear if the states in the California consortium will continue with plans to develop a new assessment system for ELLs.

“Right now, our priority is to maintain relationships with those states,” she said. “But we don’t know what the mechanism would be for moving forward.”

One option for the consortium is to adopt the work of the Wisconsin group, but Ms. Sigman said it was more likely that California would work on its own tests to align with the common standards, much like New York state is doing. It’s also possible that other states would join the Wisconsin consortium.

‘Richer Information’

In the meantime, the Wisconsin group is creating its new, technology-based English-language proficiency tests that the test designer said will provide much more detail on how students are doing.

“There have been limitations to what we can put on a paper-and-pencil test,” said Timothy Boals, the executive director of WIDA, which designed the nation’s most widely used English-proficiency test. “The items that we are going to be able to design for a computer-based test should give us much richer information, not only on whether a student got a question right or wrong, but [to] help us to see what is getting in the way of a student answering a question correctly.”

Most test items on current English-language proficiency exams are multiple-choice questions. With the computer-based exams, students will be able to demonstrate their understanding in various ways as they interact with the web-based audio, visual, and text-based prompts on a computer screen, Mr. Boals said.

“The central goal for us,” said Philip Olsen, the assistant director for the office of educational accountability in the Wisconsin education department, “is to help English-learners access the grade-level curriculum and become college- and career-ready.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2011 edition of Education Week as Questions Arise Over Awarding of Grants for ELL Tests

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