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States Adopt New Tests for English-Learners

By Mary Ann Zehr — January 23, 2007 6 min read
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Officials in several Virginia school districts are up in arms, but most state and local education leaders appear to be complying with demands by the federal government to change how they test English-language learners this school year.

In at least seven states, thousands of English-learners will face a different—in some cases, harder—reading or mathematics test for accountability purposes this year under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The seven are among 18 states that received letters from the U.S. Department of Education last summer saying their testing systems would be rejected unless they could resolve federal objections to how they test students who are still learning English, according to Catherine E. Freeman, a special assistant to the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education in the Education Department.

At issue is whether the alternative tests being offered by those states are comparable to the regular state reading and math tests being used to test other students for adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Some of the 18 states, such as Oregon, are conducting comparability studies to try to satisfy federal officials. Others still are trying to figure out what to do.

“In some sense, dropping those tests that lack comparability is a good thing, because we really don’t know what they are measuring,” said Jamal Abedi, an education professor at the University of California, Davis, and a specialist in the assessment of English-language learners. However, he said, “validity is even more important” than comparability, and some states may be sacrificing validity by dropping alternative ways of testing English-learners.

Ms. Freeman said the Education Department is not overlooking the importance of validity. She noted that states often were asked to show validity as well as comparability.

But some district officials are resisting what they believe are unreasonable federal demands.

The federal government has told Virginia it must stop using its test of English-language proficiency to calculate AYP in reading for beginning English-learners. But the Virginia congressional delegation has written a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings asking for a one-year delay in changing the state’s testing policy. A similar request by Virginia education officials was denied in a Dec. 11 meeting, but the federal government has not yet rejected the request in writing. (“U.S. Rebuffs N.Y., Va. on English-Language Learners,” Dec. 20, 2006.)

Statewide, about 10,000 students have been taking the English-language-proficiency test as a substitute for the regular reading test, according to Teddi Predaris, the director of services for English-language learners in the 164,000-student Fairfax County district.

Last week, the school board of the Harrisonburg, Va., public schools voted unanimously not to go along with the federal requirement. “What’s right for children is not placing an inappropriate test before them,” said Donald J. Ford, the superintendent of the 4,400-student school system, who introduced the resolution to the board.

The school boards in Virginia’s Arlington and Fairfax counties soon are expected to consider similar resolutions that resist the federal requirement for testing beginning English-learners.

“You don’t give kids a test in reading when they can’t read the language, if you expect to get anything out of it,” said Robert G. Smith, the superintendent of the 18,400-student Arlington public schools, who is leading the push in his district to resist the change in tests.

Most-Common Practice

By far, the most common way for states to include English-learners in large-scale testing is to give them regular state tests with accommodations, said Patrick Rooney, a senior policy adviser for the federal Education Department. Such accommodations could include extra time or the use of a dictionary.

Some states have switched abruptly to such practices.

Testing Policies for English-Language Learners

Arkansas | Indiana | Tennessee | Wisconsin

Have stopped using portfolio tests or tests with a portfolio component, in which students’ work is collected as a measurement of what they know.

Minnesota | New York | Texas | Virginia

Have agreed to no longer use English-language-proficiency tests to calculate adequate yearly progress for reading for English-language learners, though Virginia has requested a one-year delay on a change in policy.

Colorado | Kansas | New Mexico | New York | Ohio | Oregon | Pennsylvania | Texas

Will continue to provide tests in Spanish for some grades or subjects. Oregon provides tests in Russian as well. New York provides test translations in five languages.

Illinois

Will continue to use a test in “plain English” for math and reading.

North Carolina

Has had a “checklist” test approved by the federal government for which teachers collect student portfolios.

SOURCE: Education Week

Indiana, for example, dropped its only alternative test for English-learners, a reading and mathematics test that included student portfolios, after the federal government said the state hadn’t demonstrated that the alternative was comparable to Indiana’s regular tests. Nearly 4,400 English-learners took the alternative test last school year, according to Wes Bruce, the assistant superintendent for the Indiana Department of Education.

Indiana’s 22,000 English-language learners who were tested in September, after the alternative test was dropped, scored worse than they did the previous year in reading at every grade level tested, from grades 3-10. The portion of students who passed dropped anywhere from 3 percentage points for 3rd graders to 13 percentage points for 8th graders.

In addition to Virginia, four states—Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, and Texas—began using English-language-proficiency tests as substitutes for regular reading tests for some English-learners at some point after enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act five years ago. Minnesota, New York, and Texas now have dropped that practice. Nebraska has yet to decide what it will do.

Ms. Freeman said federal officials have made it clear that, at least “in the short run,” it’s not an option for states to use an English-language-proficiency test instead of a regular reading test for NCLB accountability purposes. So far, states haven’t been able to show “comparability and alignment” for such tests, she said.

Ellen Forte, a consultant on testing and accountability for the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers and a participant in the Education Department’s peer review process of state testing systems, says the federal government is right to focus on comparability.

“In the past years, states simply did not offer legitimate alternative assessments for English-language learners, ones that were designed to address the access challenges that these students face and allow them to demonstrate what they can do,” she said.

Other Alternatives

While the federal government hasn’t outright rejected any other form of testing alternative, states nevertheless have been forced to stop using some alternatives because they couldn’t satisfy federal officials’ concerns about comparability.

In addition to Indiana, three states stopped using portfolio tests or tests with a portfolio component this school year. North Carolina, however, managed to submit enough evidence to get a “checklist” test, which has a portfolio component, approved by the federal government.

Illinois is continuing this school year to use a “plain English” test for English-language learners in math and reading, though the federal government hasn’t yet approved the test. About 50,000 of the state’s 165,000 English-language learners take that test every year.

And at least eight states, including New York and Texas, will continue this school year to provide tests for some grades or subjects in a language other than English, most commonly Spanish.

Federal officials emphasize they are willing to work with states to continue exploring the best way to meet a difficult testing challenge.

Ms. Freeman, of the Education Department, points to the LEP Partnership, a federal initiative announced in July, as a way for state and federal officials to examine alternative ways to include students with limited English proficiency in large-scale testing.

Also, last October, the department gave $1.8 million to a consortium of 14 states and the District of Columbia to develop an alternative test for English-language learners, essentially a plain-English test. According to Timothy J. Boals, the director of that consortium—called World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment—the test be implemented in 2010.

A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2007 edition of Education Week as States Adopt New Tests for English-Learners

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