Federal

States Seeking Proper Balance in Use of ELL Test Scores

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 24, 2008 6 min read
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Now that they have new English-language-proficiency tests to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, state education officials are trying to come up with guidelines on how school districts use those tests to decide when English-language learners no longer need specialized instruction.

States vary widely in how prescriptive they are in the use of those test scores, but most seem to be taking steps toward standardizing the process.

“Is there a relationship between the scores and what is happening in the classroom? I certainly hope so,” said Ellen Forte, a consultant on ELLs for the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers. “It’s a place where people should be focusing a lot of attention—the validity of the scores and how we are using them.”

She added, however, that “a lot of this happened very, very quickly. … There’s been a steep learning curve for practitioners.”

Jamal Abedi, an education professor at the University of California, Davis, said that “it would be beneficial for everyone in the state to be consistent” in applying scores from English-language-proficiency tests.

But he cautioned that consistency is meaningful only if a state has followed the instructions under NCLB in developing tests that are aligned with state academic-content standards, and in basing instruction on those standards.

And some district administrators contend that determinations such as reclassifying students as fluent in English or moving them out of specialized instruction should be made at the district, not state, level.

Carol Bass, who supervises programs for ELLs in the Prince William County, Va., school system, said she’s happy Virginia has not yet dictated specific scores or amount of time spent in a program when determining when students can leave such instruction. The state accepts a “body of evidence” from districts to justify such decisions, she noted.

Such an approach is preferable, she said in an e-mail message, “especially for exiting, as it is important to use other formative-assessment results and summative ones, plus the students’ school records, to determine if they are able to succeed on their own.”

Varying Flexibility

While Virginia leaves it up to school districts to decide when English-language learners should no longer get special help, Louisiana and Georgia require districts to adhere to uniform criteria.

When to Move

States vary in the amount of leeway they give school districts in deciding when English-language learners can leave special language instruction programs.

CALIFORNIA: Spells out several criteria that school districts must consider but leaves it up to the districts to determine when English-language learners should exit programs.

GEORGIA: Generally requires that students stay in programs until they reach a composite score of 5 out of 6 possible levels on the most difficult of three versions of the state’s Englishproficiency test. But a district can move children with lower scores out of those programs if they can show strong English skills on some other measure, such as the state’s regular reading test.

LOUISIANA: Requires districts to keep students in special programs until they score a 5 out of 5 possible levels in all areas—reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Students must also score “basic” or above on all subjects on regular state tests before exiting programs.

SOURCES: Education departments of California, Georgia, and Louisiana

Louisiana mandates that districts keep ELLs in special programs until they score a 5 out of a possible 5 denoting level of performance in each of four categories—reading, writing, speaking, and listening—on the English Language Development Assessment, or ELDA, produced by a consortium formed by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

In addition, students must score “basic” or above in all subjects on Louisiana’s regular academic tests for two years in a row.

Georgia has a similar policy, but with more flexibility for local administrators. Districts are instructed to keep students in special programs until they reach a composite score of 5 out of 6 levels on the state’s English-language-proficiency test, ACCESS for ELLs. They must get that score on the most difficult of three versions that teachers can select for students to take. But Georgia’s local district officials have leeway to move a student out of a special program if the student has a composite score of at least 4 and can demonstrate strong English skills on another measure, such as the state’s regular reading test.

Carol Johnson, the instruction and curriculum specialist for English-language learners for the Georgia Department of Education, said standardization ensures “equity for students, so they are getting the same access to services when they need them.”

But Deb Sigman, the director of standards and assessment for the California Department of Education, said it makes sense to give school districts the final word because “they are in the best position to determine what is most appropriate for particular students.”

She added, however, that California spells out criteria that districts must take into consideration. And Ms. Sigman said that state officials are concerned that many more ELLs are scoring as proficient on the California English Language Proficiency Test, or CELDT, than are being reclassified as fluent in English by districts.

Multiple Measures

The most widely used English-language-proficiency test is the ACCESS for ELLs test, developed by the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment consortium, or WIDA. South Dakota just became the 17th state to adopt that test. Most of those states have policies recommending or requiring that districts apply scores on the test to decisions on the ground, according to Timothy J. Boals, the executive director of WIDA.

He said WIDA staff members tell states that English-learners are usually ready to leave special programs when they score between a 4 and 5 out of 6 possible levels on each of the four domains of skills tested by ACCESS for ELLs. Generally, if students have a composite score of 4.5 or 5, the fact that they are still learning English is no longer an obstacle for them in taking regular state tests, he said.

In addition, Mr. Boals said, state officials are told they should let districts use a number of measures to decide whether ELLs no longer need specialized instruction.

“You want to have data from the classroom teachers,” he said. “How are the kids able to perform in the academic classes? Most states are trying to build those multiple measures into their policies.”

Because the English-proficiency tests are so new, some educators have urged states not to be too quick to dictate to districts how to make determinations about services based on those scores.

In Florida, for example, educators have asked state officials to hold off on some aspects of standardization.

The Florida Association of Bilingual and English-to-Speakers-of-Other-Languages Supervisors has said in a position statement that until more research is available on the state’s English-proficiency test, districts should retain the right to use their own exit criteria. The organization opposes having the state dictate cutoff scores when the test is so new.

Nevertheless, the Florida Department of Education has proposed a new regulation, to be discussed in an April 15 hearing, that would standardize exit criteria across the state. Those criteria include using particular cutoff scores on the Comprehensive English Language Learning Assessment, or CELLA, a test produced by the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service.

In Louisiana, some districts have complained that the state set the bar too high for students to leave special programs, said Leslie H. Lightbourne, an education program consultant for the Louisiana Department of Education. The department will likely recommend a lower cutoff score for exiting programs to the state school board in mid-May, she said.

Gladys C. White, the coordinator of programs for ELLs in the 45,600-student East Baton Rouge Parish school system, is among those who think the state’s standard is too strict. She said it should be enough for a student to score “basic” or above on a regular English test, rather than have to reach that level on tests in all subjects. She believes her district has some students in specialized instruction who should move on.

That view may be getting some sympathy at the state level. Ms. Lightbourne said: “We are revisiting that criteria because now that we have three years of solid ELDA data, we feel that the test is of sufficient rigor that we want to adjust the exit criteria.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 26, 2008 edition of Education Week

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