ACT Wants Scores to Accurately Reflect What English-Learners Learn in School

By Corey Mitchell — November 15, 2016 3 min read
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First posted on Education Week’s High School and Beyond blog

By Catherine Gewertz

ACT Inc., announced Monday that it will provide, for the first time, accommodations for English-learners who take its college-entrance exam.

The options will become available in the fall of 2017. Students will have to apply for them through their school counselor’s office. The accommodations announced Monday include:

  • More time on the test: up to time-and-a-half
  • Use of an approved word-to-word bilingual glossary (one that has no word definitions)
  • Testing in a non-distracting environment (i.e., in a separate room)
  • Test instructions provided in the student’s native language (including Spanish and a limited number of other languages initially)

In the past, the Iowa-based testing company has not offered accommodations based solely on a student’s limited English proficiency. The company said in a statement that the purpose of the new accommodations is to “help ensure that the ACT scores earned by English-learners accurately reflect what they have learned in school.” Students who are granted permission to use them will be assured that the scores they earn on the ACT can be used for college admission.

In states that require all juniors to take the ACT, some students have found themselves in a bind. Students learning English, and those with special needs, have long been accustomed to receiving accommodations for classroom work and tests. But ACT and the College Board have their own criteria for granting accommodations, and some students found that they could not obtain the same kind of supports for the SAT or ACT that they’re used to having on their districts’ or states’ tests.

That problem came to the public’s attention as more and more states require all students to take one of the college-entrance exams. Last year, 21 states mandated the SAT or ACT for all high school juniors, according to Education Week‘s national database of assessments. Of those 21 states, 15 require the ACT.

That puts many students in a bind, however. Students who can’t get their typical accommodations on the college-entrance exams ended up having to make a tough choice: take the test without them and risk a lower score, or insist on the accommodations they’re used to, and accept that ACT or the College Board would not certify the resulting scores for use in college applications.

ACT spokesman Ed Colby said that in its work with states, states have mentioned the issue of English-learners being unable to obtain the same accommodations on the ACT that they receive for other tests and classroom work. The decision to offer accommodations for English-learners “was informed by our work with states, and is something we’ve been looking at and thinking about for some time,” he said.

ACT Chief Commercial Officer Suzana Delanghe said in a statement that the company decided to offer the new supports to give English-learners “an equal opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned in school” ... while not giving the students any special advantages.”

“This change is about improving access and equity for students whose proficiency in English might prevent them from truly demonstrating the skills and knowledge they have learned,” she said.

The company also indicated that the new offerings are also an attempt to rectify another problem.

“ACT has preliminary data suggesting that academic achievement of English-learners may be underreported under standard ACT test conditions,” its statement said.

Once students begin taking advantage of the new supports, ACT Inc. plans to conduct a series of studies to verify that their scores are as valid and reliable as those of students who don’t use them, Colby said. No timeline for completion of those studies has yet been specified.

Some observers surmised that ACT’s move could reflect its desire to keep or win statewide or districtwide contracts, a staple of its business. The company overtook its rival, the College Board, several years ago to become the nation’s most popular college-entrance test.

“It’s a very savvy play by ACT to position itself to say we are the better test to be used as your high school test, because we recognize the various levels of language proficiency, and we’ll provide a test that measures students’ skills and knowledge, not just their familiarity with the language,” said Ned Johnson, the president of PrepMatters, a Bethesda, Md.-based tutoring and test-preparation company.

Akil Bello, Princeton Review’s director of strategic initiatives in New York City, said ACT’s decision to offer accommodations to English-learners could be a “legit” response to its reputation as a test that’s hard for many students to finish in the amount of time allotted for it. That’s a challenge that can be deepened for English learners.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.

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