State Testing of English-Learners Scrutinized

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 14, 2005 4 min read
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State efforts at carrying out requirements to test English-language learners under the No Child Left Behind Act are receiving increased scrutiny, as hundreds of schools across the country fail to meet goals for adequate yearly progress at least in part because of such students’ scores.

This month, 10 school districts in California charged in a suit that their state is not complying with the federal law’s mandate to test English-language learners “in a valid and reliable manner,” as the law says. The law elaborates that states must provide accommodations for such students and, “to the extent practicable,” test English-language learners in a “language and form most likely to yield accurate data on what students know and can do.”

The June 1 lawsuit filed in state superior court in San Francisco argues the state is breaking the law because it hasn’t produced mathematics and reading tests in Spanish or other languages commonly spoken by English-language learners, nor does it have tests in simplified English.

District officials say in the lawsuit that their schools are being penalized because some of them haven’t met AYP goals for English-language learners.

They imply that the state’s lack of valid testing for such students is making their schools look bad. After all, they argue, some English-language learners would score much better on standardized tests if they were tested in their native languages.

The No Child Left Behind Act—which holds schools accountable not only for overall student achievement, but also for the performance of key student subgroups—permits English-language learners to take math and reading tests in their native languages for the first three years they attend U.S. schools, and for two additional years on a student-by-student basis.

Tests in Students' Native Languages

Eleven states provide mathematics or reading tests in languages other than English for at least some grades and use those tests to meet the No Child Left Behind Act’s requirements for assessing English-language learners.

• Colorado • Minnesota • Oregon

• Delaware • New Mexico • Pennsylvania

• Kansas • New York • Texas

• Massachusetts • Ohio

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education and Education Week

Only 11 states use such native-language tests statewide and as part of their accountability systems.

Hilary McLean, a spokeswoman for Jack O’Connell, California’s state superintendent of public instruction, responded to the lawsuit by saying, “The most practicable approach is to provide the test in English.” Ms. McLean added that it wouldn’t be fair to create a test in some languages and not in others spoken by the state’s 1.6 million English-language learners. And to devise tests in all of the native languages, she said, would be “complex and costly.”

Plus, she said, because California’s reading test is supposed to tell whether students have learned English language arts, it wouldn’t make sense to give it in any language but English.

California is the second state to be sued on whether it provides tests in Spanish for students who aren’t proficient in English.

The 17,000-student Reading school district filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Department of Education in August 2003 arguing that some of its schools hadn’t made AYP in part because the state didn’t provide tests in Spanish, and asked for relief from sanctions placed on those schools.

When the relief was rejected, the district took the matter to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. That court ruled last August that it was up to the state to decide whether to develop tests in Spanish.

That same month, the Reading district filed an appeal on the court’s ruling with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which hasn’t yet decided if it will hear the case.

Bottom Line

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the bottom line is that states must provide testing accommodations for English-language learners, said Kathleen Leos, the associate deputy undersecretary for the department’s office of English-language acquisition. Whether they create tests in Spanish or other native languages is optional, she said.

But Paul Weckstein, the co-director of the Center for Law and Education, based in Washington, said the department may not have the final word on the subject. He said states could run into trouble with the No Child Left Behind Act, federal civil rights laws, and, in some cases, their own state laws, if they haven’t made sufficient efforts to provide tests in native languages.

Since 1994, federal law has said that states should “to the extent practicable” test an English-language learner in a language and form that produces reliable results. Most states with tests in native languages made them before the No Child Left Behind Act, a revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

New requirements for English-language learners in the 2002 law are spurring more activity on that front. For example, a consortium of nine states, led by Wisconsin, plans to develop a language arts test in Spanish by 2008 that would be used by English-language learners in place of their states’ reading tests. It would be based on Spanish language arts standards, which consortium members are drafting.

Most states with tests in foreign tongues, however, have simply provided written translations of the academic tests they give to all students. And most have translated tests only into Spanish.

The Education Department counts 14 states as having assessments in students’ native languages, including those that have merely been translated from regular tests. But Education Week reporting found that only 11 of those states use those tests statewide and as part of their accountability systems.

Some state education officials say the alternative tests have been worth the money and effort.

Alexa E. Posney, the assistant commissioner of education for Kansas, said her state spent $21,000 for a one-time translation of its math and reading tests. The state also has tests in simplified English. Ms. Posney said that both kinds of tests have helped schools meet their AYP goals.

Of the 36 states that reported complete information on AYP for English-language learners to the federal Education Department in December, only two states—Alabama and Michigan—met their goals in reading and math in the 2003-04 school year. (“Federal Data Show Gains on Language,” March 23, 2005.)

That means hundreds of schools aren’t making AYP for English-language learners.


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