Educators Grapple With Assessing Non-English-Speakers

By Millicent Lawton — December 10, 1997 6 min read

One of the key policy decisions that cut into support for President Clinton’s plan for new national tests was that the reading test be given only in English.

Although every aspect of the proposed voluntary tests is in limbo while an independent body takes them under review, that decision highlights the ongoing educational challenge of assessing the literacy skills of the many students from immigrant families who are not yet proficient in English.

The goal of the proposed national tests in 4th grade reading and 8th grade math, from the administration’s view, was to help parents and teachers measure individual student achievement.

Irma Trujillo

But advocates for students with limited English proficiency, representatives of civil rights groups, and many liberal members of Congress, among others, countered that students who are still learning English would be shut out of a measure of their reading ability.

If students with limited English proficiency were given no option but to take the reading test in English, they argued, it would reveal nothing more than how little or how much English they knew. The issue even prompted Los Angeles, Houston, and El Paso, Texas, school officials to change their minds about taking part in the planned reading test.

Rosita Apodaca

In those and other districts, educators must deal daily with assessing the reading and other skills of students who are not yet competent in English. Many literacy experts say that if the goal is to find out how well a student reads, the assessment is far more meaningful if it is administered in the student’s native tongue.

Visit our on-line Town Meeting to discuss what steps school districts should be required to take to assess the reading levels of non-English speaking students.

For language-minority students, said Irma Trujillo, the director of bilingual education in the Ysleta district in El Paso, there are two questions in assessing reading ability: “Is the child learning to read, and is the child learning English?”

“They are separate issues and you test both of them,” she argued.

Forty percent of the students who enter the 48,000-student district do so speaking Spanish as their first language, Ms. Trujillo said. “If you assess reading in a second language for a student [who is] not fully proficient, then you are not assessing reading, you are assessing language,” she said.

“Reading skills are reading skills,” Ms. Trujillo said. “Reading skills transfer even with a language, such as Chinese, when you’re dealing with totally different characters.”

One for All

According to the latest and best research, Ms. Trujillo said, it takes between four and seven years for students from immigrant families to learn English sufficiently to compete comparably in school with native English speakers.

In Texas, as in many states, a mandatory statewide test measures students’ achievement in academic subjects. Spanish-speaking students may take the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills in Spanish through the 6th grade, Ms. Trujillo said. Using such test results, she said, the Ysleta district learned it needed to do a better job at teaching reading--in Spanish.

But some see a downside to testing students in their native languages. While as many students as possible should be included in standardized tests, “everyone should be given the exact same standardized test, in English,” said Jorge Amselle, a spokesman for the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington-based organization that advocates greater assimilation of immigrants into the U.S. mainstream and an emphasis on English instruction in schools.

If a test of academic skills reveals an LEP student’s weaknesses in English, so be it, Mr. Amselle said. Over time, he argued, the student’s grasp of English will improve. “If you can’t communicate effectively in English, it’s going to be tough to get a job no matter how smart you are.”

“Rather than improve the education of students,” the attitude of some educators, Mr. Amselle said, is to “improve the test to make the students look smarter.”

More Measurement Methods

In San Francisco, the public schools use a variety of assessments with their students still learning English, said Rosita Apodaca, an assistant superintendent there. Limited-English-proficient students represent about one-third, or 20,700 of the district’s 62,000 students, she said. Of the LEP students, 36 percent are native Spanish speakers and 35 percent are native Chinese speakers.

District educators assess reading using standardized, norm-referenced tests in English and Spanish. Spanish is the only other language in which such tests--which compare students with one another, rather than against a fixed standard--are available. And, across the curriculum, schools are encouraged to use portfolio assessment--looking at an accumulation of student work--to gauge achievement. That method comes in handy for evaluating the knowledge and skills of students who are speakers of languages other than English or Spanish, Ms. Apodaca said.

Another commonly used “qualitative instrument,” Ms. Apodaca said, is rubrics--guidelines that tell a teacher whether a student has met certain standards of achievement.

The district, she said, had been working with a test developer to try to create a norm-referenced, quantitative assessment for Chinese students. But it stopped when district officials realized the state was about to make changes to the statewide testing program.

Indeed, California and Illinois are two states venturing into new assessment territory to try to help educators measure the achievement of LEP students.

Both states have in place or are working on two kinds of assessments for LEP students: one measuring student proficiency in English and the other gauging what students know in academic-content areas--as expressed in their native language.

California this fall passed into law a new assessment system that requires basic-skills testing in English of all students in grades 2-11. Pupils with limited proficiency in English who have been enrolled in school less than a year will be required to take a test in their primary language--if there is one. A Spanish version is available. If a district chooses, it can give LEP students enrolled longer than 12 months two tests--one in English and one in their primary language.

In addition, the state is going to give LEP students what it calls an English-language-development test, which is to be an annual indicator of how well such students are doing at mastering English.

Illinois gave its first full-scale administration of a similar standardized English-proficiency test for LEP students earlier this year. The test, custom-designed for Illinois, covers reading and writing skills and is required each year for students in grades 3-11 who have been receiving English instruction in state schools for six months to three years.

The test, the Illinois Measure of Annual Growth in English, or IMAGE, was prompted by 1993 legislation and is meant to be a precursor to the state’s mandatory achievement test, the IGAP, or Illinois Goal Assessment Program.

“What we needed ... was a test that would both accommodate the special needs of learners of English and to get them used to the kind of testing that they would face when they get into the IGAP,” said Anne Marie Fuhrig, an accountability consultant at the state education department.

‘A Big Step’

The state also expects to start providing next month new “exemplars,” or models for instruction and assessment, to help districts assess the social science, science, and math knowledge of K-12 students who speak any language.

The exemplars provide “a way to say what is language and what is conceptual development, and that’s a big step,” said Christine Ewy, an independent education consultant who has been working on the assessments. The exemplars use graphics to help students show their knowledge, even if their English skills are limited, she said.

“Many times, when children are assessed in social studies, for example, they don’t have the language to say what they know.”


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