English-Language Learners

Millions of ELL Students Face Prospect of In-Person, Federal Testing During COVID-19

By Corey Mitchell — December 22, 2020 | Corrected: December 28, 2020 7 min read
In this Thursday, May 23, 2013 photo, students line up for recess at Jay W. Jeffers Elementary School in Las Vegas. More than 80 of the school's incoming kindergartners don’t speak English.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this article incorrectly included Florida among the states that develop and administer their own English-proficiency exams. Florida uses the ACCESS exam, which is developed by WIDA, one of the nation’s largest ELL testing vendors.

The disruption to in-school learning caused by the global pandemic this year has hit the nation’s 5 million English-language learners especially hard.

These students often lack access to dependable internet and technology, have non-English-speaking parents who struggle to support their remote learning, and have lost crucial access to teachers and classmates who have in prior years helped them develop their language skills.

Now, millions face yet another predicament: being asked to return to schools to take federally required English-language-proficiency exams amid the national surge in coronavirus cases.

That’s because WIDA, one of the nation’s largest ELL testing vendors, has concerns about the validity of a take-home test and students’ access to technology and the internet.

“My job as a test director, is to say that the score you get from our assessment means the same thing that it meant last year, that gives you the same information so that you can make a choice and decision about a student’s proficiency,” said H. Gary Cook, the senior director of assessment for WIDA. “I have a really hard time understanding how we can get a score that’s comparable to the score that’s not remote.”

Advocates in at least two states, Colorado and Florida, say it is unfair and potentially dangerous to ask English-learners—most of whom are Latino, Asian, and Black—to return to school buildings while COVID-19 cases sweep through their communities.

In both states, groups have urged the state education commissioners to postpone the start of testing season, which begins next month, until things are safe or make the test voluntary for families who are not yet comfortable with their children returning to school. National organizations for English-learner educators are also urging states to postpone or aggressively seek testing waivers.

The reliance on in-person testing is “far too risky and potentially life threatening” and “raises serious discrimination concerns,” Jorge Garcia, the chairman and chief executive officer of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education, wrote this month in a letter to Colorado state Education Commissioner Katy Anthes.

Despite the requests, the Colorado and Florida departments of education indicated this week they will proceed with testing. States run the risk of losing federal funding if they fail to enforce federal standardized testing requirements.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states must use data from the exams to determine whether students are English proficient. Not offering the tests could hold back some students who are ready to exit English-learner status.

The push to delay or forego the English-proficiency testing is part of the larger debate this year over federal standardized testing requirements during the pandemic. Outgoing U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has declined to waive testing requirements for the 2020-21 school year after granting states a reprieve in the spring as schools shut down nationwide.

Taking Out the Guesswork

The English-proficiency exams are required by state and federal law for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. The scores indicate what level of English proficiency a student has reached and helps determine if students should stop receiving English-learner support services.

Determining whether ELL students still need support and when they no longer require it marks a critical juncture in their academic careers. Students who are deemed English proficient and pulled out of support services before they are ready can end up struggling in school. Taking longer to reclassifying students as English proficient could slow their academic growth and limit their access to higher-level courses that can prepare them for college and career opportunities.

States use the English-proficiency tests to take some of the guesswork out of the process.

Both states belong to the WIDA consortium, the organization that oversees the ACCESS for ELLs tests, which measure students’ English-proficiency in four domains—listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

WIDA, which provides the ACCESS tests to 36 states, several United States territories, and agencies such as the Bureau of Indian Education decided in September not to offer a remote option for the test. Altogether, the consortium tests 2.1 million students annually, slightly more than 40 percent of the nation’s English-learner enrollment.

The tests will not have remote options this year because WIDA and its member states were not confident that all students would be able to take the test in its current format, and that students would have equal access to technology at home to complete the exam, said Cook.

There were also concerns that English-learner students’ parents, some of whom are not proficient English speakers themselves, would be unable to help with setting up and proctoring the test, said Jonathan Gibson, the director of consortium and state relations department at WIDA.

For younger students, a remote test would have been especially difficult to carry out: the entire test for kindergarten students is paper-only and the writing test is paper-only for students in 1st through 3rd grade.

TESOL International Association, an organization for teachers who specialize in working with English-learners, has also raised questions about the validity of tests given this year, especially the speaking portions: with students wearing masks in class, it could be more difficult for teachers to hear and understand what students are saying.

Advocates in Colorado argued that the test results may yield little useful information, given the amount of time that many English-learners have been away from in-person schooling.

The English Language Proficiency Assessment for the 21st Century (ELPA21) consortium, which includes eight states, also will not offer a remote option for its English-proficiency test.

The consortium determined that remote testing was not a constructive use of “time given the pandemic circumstances,” Cathryn Still, the executive director of ELPA21, said in a statement provided to Education Week.

Advocates Push Officials to Tell Parents They Can Opt Out

While advocates in Colorado and Florida are pushing for a reprieve, many of the remaining states in the WIDA consortium will forge ahead with in-person testing, allowing for flexibility in the testing schedule by either delaying the start of testing or extending the period where students can take the exam. Testing has already begun in Montana and Department of Defense schools.

In response to concerns about health-and-safety protocols, WIDA developed guidelines on how to administer the ACCESS tests during the pandemic. While having data to gauge how students progressed or regressed is valuable, Cook acknowledged that requiring students to return to class does carry risks.

In Colorado and Florida, advocates are asking the states to communicate to parents that they can opt their children out of taking the test. While the state could face penalties for not offering the test, students cannot be punished for skipping the test.

Advocates asked in their letter to Florida state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to inform parents that “those students who elect not to take the tests will not be disciplined, punished, or otherwise sanctioned for opting out of the tests.”

Illinois is among the states that pushed back the start of testing in response to community concerns. The state’s Board of Education this week announced plans to delay the opening of its spring assessment window, ensuring that no students will take a federally required assessment, including ACCESS, until mid-March at the earliest. In previous years, the state testing window for ACCESS typically ran from mid-January through mid-February.

California, home to about 1.1 million English-learners, will offer remote and in-person testing options for its annual English-proficiency exam, the English Language Proficiency Assessment for California, also known as ELPAC. Most of California’s 6 million public school students are still learning from home—and some school districts have not set a timeline to resume in-person instruction. More than 40 percent of public school students in the state speak a language other than English at home.

Like California, the states of Arizona, Texas, and New York develop and administer their own English-proficiency exams. Officials there did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2021 edition of Education Week as Millions of ELL Students Face In-Person, Federal Testing During COVID-19

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