Tests of Youngest English-Learners Spark Controversy

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 16, 2004 6 min read
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At a time when many states are poised to roll out new standardized tests to evaluate English-language proficiency in unprecedented depth, California is balking at carrying out a federal requirement to test the literacy of young children who are learning English.

In a unanimous vote last week, the California board of education decided to ask the U.S. Department of Education to exempt the state’s English-language learners in kindergarten and 1st grade from being tested in reading and writing, as required under the No Child Left Behind Act.

California officials argue that their schools’ current practice of testing such children only in listening and speaking should be sufficient. Schools in the state enroll about 30 percent of the nation’s 5.5 million English-language learners.

“You can imagine the amount of time it would take to give the assessment,” said Deb Sigman, the state testing director for the California Department of Education. “We think it’s in the best interest of students that that time be focused on instruction of those preliteracy skills.”

Meanwhile, many other states are gearing up for new exams to assess English-language learners of all ages—including kindergartners and 1st graders—in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. For the youngest of them, some test developers have designed assessments that must be given one-on-one and could take up to an hour and a half for a single child, though they aren’t expected to be given in one sitting.

The tests for young children, planned to start next spring or next school year in many places, measure such factors as whether a child knows that English is read from left to right and can recognize letters of the alphabet or single words, rather than whether the child can actually read or write, test developers say.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires states to include English-language learners in the statewide assessments given to all students in grades 3-8 and high school. But in addition, states must test English-language learners in grades K-12 each year on their English proficiency.

Extra Burden?

In California, officials do not want to alter the California English Language Development Test to include reading and writing sections for kindergartners and 1st graders, Ms. Sigman said. The sections, she said, would need to be individually administered.

Ms. Sigman said the federal requirement for English-proficiency testing puts an extra burden on young English-language learners that their native-English-speaking classmates don’t have to deal with. She pointed out that the No Child Left Behind Act does not require standardized testing of native English-speakers until the 3rd grade. California starts all children with such testing in 2nd grade.

Kathleen Leos, the associate deputy undersecretary in the office of English-language acquisition in the U.S. Department of Education, declined to comment last week on California’s request for a waiver from the testing requirement for young English-language learners. She said the department hadn’t yet formally received it.

But Ms. Leos reiterated the importance of the requirements. “I’m assuming classrooms will be doing an ongoing assessment [of English-language learners], so you know where your students are and what your students understand over a period of time,” she said.

The discussion on the national level about the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act for English-language learners has focused on Title I, the section of the law governing aid for disadvantaged children.

Under Title I, English-language learners must take standardized state mathematics tests in the first round given after they enter U.S. schools. They have to take state reading tests in the first administration given after they’ve been in U.S. schools for a year.

Previously, many states didn’t include English-language learners in statewide assessments until they had attended U.S. schools for three years.

‘Low Ceilings’

Under the No Child Left Behind law, schools must break out the test scores for English-language learners. That provision has garnered lots of attention, given educators’ concerns that schools can be penalized if such students—like other subgroups, such as pupils with disabilities—don’t meet the “adequate yearly progress” goals set by their states under the federal law.

Reading-Test Sample

The company Ballard & Tighe has created a version of its new English-proficiency test for English-language learners in preschool and kindergarten. The examiner verbalizes what’s written in bold.


Now I will show you some words and pictures. You will read a word and point to the picture for the word. Let’s do one example. Show the sample question. Look at this word. Point to the word “Dog.” What does it say? Wait for the student to read the word. If student does not read it, read the word aloud while pointing to each letter. It says “DOG,” “DOG.” Point to the picture. Now point to the picture for “DOG.” Wait for the student to respond. Use follow-up question if necessary. If the student does not pick the right picture, point to the picture of the dog. This is a dog. OK. Ready? Let’s read some more words.


If the student does not respond within five seconds or if the student only reads the word aloud but does not point, say, Can you please point to the picture for this word?

Reading-Test Sample

SOURCE: Ballard & Tighe

But behind the scenes, educators who work directly with English-language learners have been equally worried about complying with the law’s requirements for testing such students for English-language proficiency.

In the past, federal law required schools to test the language proficiency of all English-language learners, but it didn’t specify how to do that.

The NCLB law, a 3-year-old overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, spells out for the first time that schools must test them annually in oral language and reading, as well as writing. The law says the English-proficiency tests were supposed to be in place by the 2002-03 school year, but in many states that didn’t happen.

The act also says states must report English-proficiency scores to the federal government. And it says states must establish standards for raising the proficiency of English-language learners and align those standards with state academic-content standards.

Testing experts say most of the English-proficiency tests used to date won’t cut it anymore.

“The old tests weren’t anchored in standards,” said Margo Gottlieb, the developer for a consortium of nine states and the District of Columbia led by the Wisconsin education department that has created an English-proficiency test. “They had very low ceilings that weren’t rigorous. We had no idea if a child shown to be proficient in English would succeed in math or science.”

Like California, up until now, states have tended to test young English-language learners only in listening and speaking, though they did test older children in English literacy.

One at a Time

Test developers are now taking pains to produce English-proficiency tests that will measure the skills of young children in four domains of English. Representatives of four consortia of states developing tests said that in kindergarten, at least, the tests will be administered one-on-one.

The consortium that Ms. Gottlieb is working with has devised a separate version of its test just for kindergartners that will be given individually. The test is expected to take about an hour if the child knows enough English to stay with it until the end.

Four of the states in the consortium—Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont—expect to roll out that test in grades K-12 next spring.

The Mountain West Assessment Consortium, a group of 11 states, has produced a version of its English-proficiency test for kindergartners and early 1st graders that will also be administered individually. That test is estimated to take about an hour and a half.

Two consortia of states have designed versions of their English-proficiency tests for youngsters in kindergarten through 2nd grade. They are a 14-state consortium led by the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers and a five-state consortium managed by AccountabilityWorks, a nonprofit organization based in Washington.

The CCSSO consortium’s English-proficiency test for grades 3-12 will be ready in the spring, but the K-2 part of the test won’t be out until next school year.

AccountabilityWorks plans to have its test, which is being developed by the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service, ready for all grades in the spring.

One commercial test developer, Ballard & Tighe, has gone beyond the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act to include prekindergarten in its new English-proficiency test.

“What we see is that state and federal funding is being given to pre-K programs as well,” said Sari Luoma, the director of assessment for the Brea, Calif.-based Ballard & Tighe. “The need for assessment at the pre-K level will rise.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 2004 edition of Education Week as Tests of Youngest English-Learners Spark Controversy


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