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Two State Consortia Vie for Grants to Create ELL Tests

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 14, 2011 3 min read
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California and Wisconsin each have formed a consortium with other states and applied for the full $10.7 million available in a grant competition to create English-language-proficiency tests for the states’ common-core academic standards.

Their applications will force the U.S. Department of Education to decide if it will split up the money or choose one winner. The awards will be announced in late summer.

Each of the two consortia has recruited enough states to meet the 15-state minimum required by the Education Department to get bonus points in the application-review process. California’s consortium includes 17 other states; Wisconsin’s includes 26 others.

Some states with a large number of English-language learners are not on the list of either consortium, including New York, which already had been developing an English-proficiency assessment for its state alone, and Texas, which didn’t adopt the common-core standards.

Both consortia propose to create computer-based assessments, which is also the case for the consortia creating regular academic-content assessments aligned with the common-core standards. (Draft Rules Point Way to Consistency in ELL Policies,” April 6, 2011.)

In addition to developing summative assessments, both California and Wisconsin propose to create a diagnostic assessment that can be used for identification and placement of ELLs. And they both plan to include tools that will inform curriculum planning and assessment. The summary of the grant proposal submitted by Wisconsin calls these tools “formative assessments,” while the summary of the application submitted by California says the assessments will “provide data to inform teachers in their instruction and curriculum planning.”

Deborah V.H. Sigman, the deputy state superintendent for the curriculum, learning, and accountability branch of the California Department of Education, said the California proposal intentionally avoided the word “formative” because the word is sometimes misused.

Wisconsin’s proposal pledges to create benchmark assessments, while California’s proposal does not. The document says the benchmark assessments will be organized by language domain—which means reading, writing, speaking, and listening—and five grade-level clusters that will provide “immediate feedback.” By contrast, the proposal describes formative assessments as a process that will integrate language-learning progressions aligned with the common-core standards into assessments used in the classroom.

The summary from California says that state will join with the Council of Chief State School Officers to create the tests. Wisconsin’s plan says that state and its partners will work in collaboration with the World-class Instructional Design and Assessment Consortium, or WIDA, which has developed the nation’s most popular English-language-proficiency test, to make the new assessments. WIDA, housed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has also conducted a fair amount of research about its English-proficiency test.

Ellen Forte, the president and founder of edCount, a Washington-based assessment-consulting business, and an expert on evaluating the validity of assessments, sized up the Wisconsin proposal as more clearly and coherently spelling out how its consortium would address test design, administration, scoring, psychometrics, and reporting than the California proposal.

‘A Waste of Time’?

But Stephen D. Krashen, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, says that creating a new generation of English-language-proficiency tests is a waste of time and money. He criticized the proposals for being based “on the invalid assumption that we can describe and teach all aspects of language directly.” He added, “I have argued since 1975 that direct teaching is very limited: descriptions of rules [for how language works] are incomplete and often very complicated, and it is very difficult to use the rules we have consciously learned.”

California has recruited 17 other states for its consortium: Arkansas, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Oregon, Washington, and West Virginia.

Wisconsin has recruited 26 other states plus the District of Columbia. The states are: Alabama, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, and Wyoming.

Three states are on both lists.

A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2011 edition of Education Week as Two State Consortia Compete for Grant to Create ELL Tests

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