Calif., Wis. Take Lead to Propose ELL Tests for ‘Common Core’

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 07, 2011 4 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.

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.

The Education Department hasn’t confirmed yet that the California and Wisconsin applications were the only ones submitted last Friday, deadline day for applicants, but that’s believed to be the case by parties who wrote the applications.

Some states with a large number of English-language learners are not on the list of either consortium. Texas isn’t mentioned, but Texas didn’t adopt the common-core standards, so that’s no surprise. New York is not on a list, so perhaps that state will continue with its practice of developing an English-proficiency assessment for its state alone.

Idaho, South Carolina, and Tennessee are on both lists, which is permitted by the Education Department, one of the applicants told me. (Louisiana, which is in California’s consortium, is also in the process of joining Wisconsin’s consortium.)

Meanwhile, several states that previously have gone it alone with English-proficiency assessments, including Arizona and California, now are members of one or the other test consortia.

Details Emerging

While I haven’t yet read the full grant proposals submitted to the Education Department on Friday, I have skimmed summaries of the proposals. 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. See an article I wrote in April for EdWeek about some of the issues ELL experts in the field are hoping the assessments will address.

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. On my blog, academics recently debated the merits of formative assessments for English-language learners.

Wisconsin’s proposal pledges to create benchmark assessments, which are described as a series of assessments organized by language domain (I interpret this to be reading, writing, speaking, or listening) and five grade-level clusters that will provide “immediate feedback.” California’s consortium doesn’t plan to create benchmark assessments.

The summary from California says that state will join with the Council of Chief State School Officers to create the tests. It also includes letters of support from experts in the field, such as Charlene Rivera, the executive director of George Washington University’s Center for Equity and Excellence in Education, and Kenji Hakuta, an education professor at Stanford University. The Wisconsin summary 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.

Timothy Boals, the executive director of WIDA, said that the Wisconsin consortium’s ability to draw on WIDA’s infrastructure and research are strengths of the application. “We are in a position because of our existing infrastructure to move beyond the screener and summative assessments to formative and benchmark assessments,” he said. He noted that by creating benchmark assessments for ELLs, the Wisconsin consortium would be going above and beyond meeting the requirements of the federal grant.

Joining Forces

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.

Sigman said that while it would be new for California to work with other states to create tests for ELLs, assessments shared by a number of western states could lessen the loss of instructional time that occurs when such students move from state to state. She noted that “many of our students go up and down the west coast,” and she’s excited that California has recruited Arizona, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington to be part of its consortium.

Wisconsin has recruited 26 other states plus the District of Columbia (four turned in their memoranda of understanding after the application was officially filed). 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.

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