English-Language Learners

Feds Reflect On Successes, Challenges of NAEP’s English-Learner Policy

By Corey Mitchell — March 10, 2015 2 min read
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Five years after adopting changes designed to boost the number of English-language learners taking the math and reading tests that are part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the board that oversees the exams known as the “nation’s report card” has begun to reflect on its testing policy and the ongoing challenges it poses.

The National Assessment Governing Board, the independent body that sets policy for NAEP, intended not only to make the tests more inclusive of English-language learners, but also to make inclusion and accommodation practices more consistent across states.

Per a recent NAGB discussion report, the board wants to know what successes in policy implementation can be highlighted. And what unintended challenges and new questions have emerged from implementing the policy.

Data from the National Center on Education Statistics show that the percentage of 4th and 8th grade students who take the standard NAEP and were identified as English-language learners continues to rise, while the rate at which language-learner students are excluded from testing has declined. Both long-term trends began in the early 2000s when NAEP first allowed students to use accommodations, such as additional time, when taking the exams.

The percentage of language-learner students using accommodations has also risen steadily for more than a decade, another indication that the academic progress of ELLs is being gauged on the national tests.

At the state level, the numbers of English-learners taking the exams has improved steadily. But some states, including Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, New Mexico and North Dakota, have struggled to reach the inclusion targets set by federal policymakers. The goal is for the tests to be administered to 85 percent of English-language learners who are in the initial sample of students targeted for testing.

To ensure that NAEP is a nationally representative sample of students, the federal testing program selects potential test-takers from a state’s entire population at each grade level. State and district educators then may exclude students whose language difficulties make test-taking impractical. A state’s exclusion rate is the percentage of students from these categorical groups that are removed from testing.

In December, the U.S. Department of Education granted Florida flexibility in how it assesses English-language learners, its ELL students two years in a U.S. school before factoring their scores on annual English/language arts and mathematics tests into school grades. Florida had sought the two-year testing timeline as part of its waiver from some requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The waiver does not apply to NAEP.

The National Assessment Governing Board has not given much thought to granting states a two-academic year grace period before requiring new ELL students take the exams, said Laura LoGerfo, assistant director for reporting and analysis at the governing board.

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