Federal

U.S. Rebuffs N.Y., Va. on English-Language Learners

By Mary Ann Zehr — December 19, 2006 4 min read
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Despite requests for leeway, federal education officials are standing firm in requiring New York and Virginia education officials, as of this school year, to stop using scores from English-language-proficiency tests to calculate adequate yearly progress for such students.

Some educators contend that regular state exams aren’t valid and reliable for children who don’t know much English, but the No Child Left Behind Act requires such children to be included in regular exams and their scores used for accountability purposes after they’ve been in the country for at least a year.

New York state and Virginia, however, have been using tests of English proficiency, rather than their states’ regular tests, to calculate adequate progress in reading for some English-language learners who have been in U.S. schools for more than a year but less than three years.

Testing English-Learners

Sample questions show how New York state’s test for English proficiency and its regular English-language-arts test differ.

ESL Test, Grades 5-6, Writing Conventions:

Read the sentence and look at the underlined part. There may be a mistake. If you find a mistake, choose the correct answer. If there is no mistake, choose Correct as is. Fill in the correct circle on your response page.

Could you the glass hand me?

Which answer is correct?
A: hand the glass me
B: hand me the glass
C: the glass to me hand
D: Correct as is

ELA Test, Grade 5, Writing:

There are some mistakes in this paragraph. Let’s correct them together.

My school is having a “Back to School” dance on Friday. I am excited about them, but I have a problem. I don’t know how to dance. I am the only one in my family who has never took dance lessons. Well, I guess I will just create my own style. Of dancing.

SOURCES: Harcourt Assessment Inc., The McGraw-Hill Cos.

Federal education officials told both states this past summer that they could lose a portion of their federal funds if they continued the practice. Virginia and New York officials grudgingly agreed to comply, but still asked for flexibility that would lessen the immediate impact of a testing change.

Some 3,400 New York teachers sent e-mail messages to the state board of regents and Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills asking them not to give in to the federal government’s demand, according to representatives of New York State United Teachers. The union, an affiliate of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, says it’s unfair to use a regular English-language-arts test that wasn’t field-tested on English-language learners in an accountability system that places sanctions on schools if such students as a subgroup do poorly on the tests.

Through last school year, New York permitted English-learners who had been in U.S. schools for less than three years to take the English-proficiency exam instead of the state’s regular English-language-arts test for accountability purposes. About 60,000 of the state’s 200,000 English-learners are expected to be affected by the state’s change in practice.

Alan Ray, the director of communications for the New York State Department of Education, noted that the state’s test of English-language proficiency, the New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test, is designed to assess how well students are acquiring basic skills in English reading and writing. The English-language-arts test, by contrast, is more difficult and tests students’ skills in understanding literature as well as in the basics.

Despite such arguments and a proposal from one member of the board of regents that state officials consider suing the federal government, a committee of the board voted 6-1 on Dec. 4 to comply, and the full board approved the decision the next day. Starting with test administrations in January, New York will require all English-language learners who have been in the country for at least one year to take the state’s English Language Arts Test for accountability purposes.

State officials say they had little choice but to comply. If New York wanted to continue to receive more than $20 million a year in federal aid under a variety of programs, Mr. Ray explained, it had to submit to the mandate it received in a June letter spelling out the results of a peer review by the federal government of the state’s large-scale assessment system.

“In the peer review and the discussions leading up to the U.S. Department of Education’s decision,” he said, “we vigorously opposed their eventual decision because we do not believe it is appropriate to test English-language learners in the second and third years [of being in U.S. schools] if they don’t understand English.”

Flexibility Asked

Mr. Mills, the New York commissioner, had sought a delay in carrying out the federal requirement, and his request was denied, according to Mr. Ray.

In Virginia, state education leaders still are trying to find wiggle room in meeting the federal government’s demands. On Dec. 11, six Virginia education officials, including state Superintendent of Public Instruction Billy K. Cannaday Jr., met in Washington with officials of the federal Education Department to ask that Virginia receive a one-year extension to continue using the state’s exam for English proficiency, the Stanford English Language Proficiency test, or SELP, in measuring adequate yearly progress.

The delegation “laid out Virginia’s case on this issue and received no indication from federal officials that any additional flexibility for Virginia is forthcoming,” said Charles Pyle, the director of communications for the state department of education.

Chad Colby, a spokesman for the federal department, confirmed in an e-mail message that federal officials had met with Virginia officials but didn’t elaborate.

While New York plans to start including all English-language learners in its regular language-arts exam, Virginia, which has 78,000 English-learners, intends to take a different approach.

The Virginia board of education voted to stop using the SELP to calculate adequate yearly progress. But it also voted to allow a portfolio assessment to be used for English-learners and to calculate their progress. State officials are expected to submit the plan to the federal government this month.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 20, 2006 edition of Education Week as U.S. Rebuffs N.Y., Va. on English-Language Learners

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