Every Student Succeeds Act

Some States With ‘English-Only’ Laws Won’t Offer Tests in Other Languages

By Corey Mitchell — October 24, 2017 6 min read
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Florida is among several states gambling that their English-only laws will provide cover from a new federal push on English-language-learner education.

Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, states must “make every effort” to develop statewide assessments in students’ first languages if they constitute a significant portion of the student population.

But Florida, with its nearly 300,000 English-learners, has shown no interest in translating its state tests into Spanish and Haitian Creole, languages spoken by tens of thousands of public school students in the state.

The state education department does not want to give exams in language arts, math, or science in students’ native languages as ESSA suggests because, it says, the state constitution declares English Florida’s official language.

Florida is one of at least a half-dozen states that have taken that stance, but none have as many English-learners as the Sunshine State, where roughly 12 percent of all K-12 students are classified as English-learners. Their presence is even more prevalent in certain regions: One in four students in the Miami-Dade County school system—the largest district in the state and one of the 10 largest in the country—are ELLs.

The law stops short of requiring the assessment in languages other than English. Most states, including Florida, give students with limited English skills standard state tests.

Arkansas, Georgia, and Virginia are also seeking to bypass the latest round of ESSA plan submissions. While the ELL population in Arkansas is small but growing, Georgia and Virginia have sizable populations.

Digging for Details

Dozens of states have laws or constitutional amendments on the books that establish English as their official language. But only a handful, including Virginia, address how schools should educate students who don’t speak English as their first language. Florida, with its 23-word English-only clause, isn’t one of them.

Virginia prohibits instruction in languages other than English “except on a very limited basis and in foreign language classes.”

Florida’s ESSA plan maintains that giving assessments to students in their native languages would impede their ability to demonstrate their knowledge.

Among states with larger English-learner populations than Florida, California and Texas have put up no resistance to offering native-language assessments. Some states with smaller ELL populations, including Minnesota and New York, plan to develop exams in three or more languages to accommodate students.

“When we look at the state plans some of them did address the questions about native language assessments very thoroughly,” said Delia Pompa, a senior fellow for education policy at the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy. “Other states were more cavalier about it. It indicates a lack of commitment, a lack of being serious about the needs of students and looking forward.”

But experts say test translations aren’t always as helpful as they might seem.

“If the student is not literate in their native language, then offering a native-language assessment is not going to help,” said Joan Herman, director emerita of CRESST, the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards & Student Testing at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Herman said translated tests can be beneficial for certain groups of students, particularly those at the middle or high school level who already had a strong foundation in their home language before coming to the United States. But for some states, developing tests in languages other than English could prove too costly, she added. Initially, Florida planned to request a waiver from the language requirement. But after pressure from state and local activists, the state folded the waiver into its ESSA plan.

The Florida Department of Education did not make Chane Eplin, who oversees the state’s ELL program, available for an interview.

The state may have good reason to be confident. Arizona and Tennessee already have won approval for their ESSA plans after citing state English-only laws as a reason not to offer native-language assessments. And some English-learner advocacy groups are not optimistic that DeVos will make an about-face on this round of submissions.

The U.S. Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment on native-language assessments.

“We don’t have any indication that [the Education Department will] be pushing back on the lack of native-language assessments,” said Lorén Trull, a senior education policy adviser with UnidosUS, formerly the National Council of La Raza.

TESOL International Association and the Joint National Committee for Language-National Council on Language and International Studies submitted a letter to Florida Gov. Rick Scott in August, arguing that bills introduced in the state legislature to authorize tests in languages other than English should serve as proof that the state’s official-English clause does not provide grounds to deny the assessments.

“To move away from developing native-language assessments tries to mask the idea that there’s going to be great diversity in this population with different needs,” said John Segota, the associate executive director for public policy & professional relations at TESOL.

Competing Interests

While the state has declared itself an English-only state, Florida is among the more than 25 states promoting bilingualism among K-12 students by offering the seal of biliteracy—a special recognition on high school diplomas for graduates who demonstrate fluency in two or more languages. To earn the award in Florida, a student has to achieve a qualifying score on a foreign-language assessment.

Rosa Castro Feinberg, a spokeswoman for Florida’s League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) chapter, argues that it’s insincere to allow foreign-language assessment to prove biliteracy, but not competency in a native language other than English.

Last year, less than 15 percent of English-language learners in Florida passed the 10th grade reading exam. This is not a new problem. State data show Florida’s English-language learners have been struggling in English and math for more than a decade.

Republican state Rep. Manny Diaz—who co-sponsored the state’s biliteracy seal legislation—doesn’t think the state should translate tests for English-learners.

“It becomes a crutch for students,” said Diaz, a former teacher and assistant principal in the Miami-Dade schools.

At most, test directions should be translated, Diaz said.

In many states, the students can get some extra help, including more time to finish a text, bilingual dictionaries, instructions read aloud to them, and testing in small groups. Florida also allows teachers to answer questions about directions or specific words or phrases in the student’s native language. In West Virginia, the lone state where English-learners represent less than 1 percent of the student population, test directions are translated into at least 17 languages.

Diaz does acknowledge that Florida could face a dilemma with students arriving from Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, a storm that ravaged the island and its schools. With families fleeing the island, state officials estimate that between 20,000 and 25,000 students, almost exclusively native Spanish speakers, could arrive in mainland schools in the coming months. Without native-language assessments, schools would have trouble figuring out what the students know.

“The issue of Puerto Rico complicates the situation on many levels,” Diaz said. “We have to take a look at how we as a state deal with that because clearly the students are not the same.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 2017 edition of Education Week as ‘English-Only’ States Balk on Tests in Other Languages


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