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U.S. to Help States With Testing of English-Learners

By Lynn Olson — July 27, 2006 4 min read

The U.S. Department of Education today announced a pilot program designed to help states better test the reading and mathematics skills of students with limited English proficiency under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The LEP Partnership, launched in collaboration with the National Council of La Raza and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, will immediately target some 20 states whose assessment systems have yet to receive full approval under the federal law, in part because they lack evidence that they are appropriately testing the content knowledge of students still learning English.

Many of those states have been threatened with federal fines for their failure to appropriately test such students. But federal officials said during a July 27 conference call that those fines would be held in abeyance in exchange for states working with the department to develop better tests and accommodations for English-language learners in time for the 2006-07 state test administration.

“For those states that enter into this partnership, we will waive the fines for this year, if they stay on the plan to improve the assessment systems for their LEP learners,” Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in a conference call with reporters.

The No Child Left Behind law requires states to include English-language learners in regular standardized tests in reading and math and use those scores in calculating whether schools and districts have met annual achievement targets. But many states have struggled to meet that mandate, a problem that became clear during the Education Department’s peer review of state standards-and-assessment systems this spring. (“Department Raps States on Testing,” July 12, 2006.)

“The peer-review process has shown us that the construction of valid, reliable LEP assessments is a real problem,” said Deputy Secretary of Education Ray Simon. “That was a reason why we believe it’s so important to get this LEP partnership off the ground quickly.”

Raul Gonzalez, the legislative director for the National Council of La Raza, said Hispanic advocacy groups have been asking for the kind of technical assistance to states from the federal government that the partnership is expected to provide.

He said special help for assessing English-language learners is needed because states “ignored the needs of these children for far too long and hadn’t put in place any infrastructure, including the assessments they needed to measure if they were effective in instruction.”

A report released this month by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the audit arm of Congress, recommends that the Education Department explore ways to provide additional flexibility to states in how they assess English-language learners. The report lists several possible steps, including extending the period of time that some or all English-learners could attend U.S. schools and not have their test scores used for NCLB accountability purposes. In a written response included in the GAO’s July 26 report, Education Department officials didn’t agree or disagree with the recommendation, but noted that they had already provided some flexibility to states in counting the scores of such students.

Federal officials did agree with the other three recommendations of the report, which are to support additional research on testing accommodations for English-learners; determine what additional help states need to ensure their assessments are valid and reliable for such students; and provide more guidance on how states should assess how well students with limited proficiency in English are learning the language.

The GAO’s report is “exactly why we’re doing this,” Ms. Spellings. “What we have found in our discussions with states is there’s a willingness. There is a lack of capacity and understanding about how best to meet the needs of these students in a timely manner.”

Negotiated Agreements

To participate in the partnership, states must negotiate a plan with the Education Department that spells out how they will fully meet the federal law’s requirements for testing English-learners by the time they administer their state reading and math tests in 2006-07. The department is inviting teams from each of the 20 states to a meeting in Washington August 28-29, during which they can work with top researchers and practitioners and meet with department officials to develop state-specific plans and a timeline for improving their testing of ELL students. Six states—California, Florida, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, and Tennessee—are participating even though they don’t have problems with their tests.

LEP Partnership

To take part in its new LEP Partnership to address the testing of students with limited English proficiency, the U.S. Department of Education has invited participation from Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

Ms. Spellings said four models for testing English-learners students will be explored by groups of states: using content tests in a language other than English; using tests of English proficiency to also assess students’ content knowledge; using simpler, less complex English on state exams; and providing appropriate accommodations to ELL students that permit them to participate in state tests without compromising the accuracy of the results.

On Oct. 28 and 29, the department will sponsor a meeting in which all states are invited to participate in the LEP Partnership.

The No Child Left Behind law requires that all students, including the nation’s approximately 5.4 million limited-English-proficient students, be proficient in reading and math by the 2013-14 school year. The GAO report about English-learners notes that in nearly two-thirds of the 48 states for which the researchers obtained data, such students didn’t meet their state’s goals for adequate yearly progress.

Assistant Editor Mary Ann Zehr contributed to this report.

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