Reporter’s Notebook

October 27, 1999 3 min read

State Officials Grappling With How To Test LEP Students

Just because a state has a written policy on how to test students who lack proficiency in English doesn’t mean the guidelines are clear or adequate, according to a recent study.

“If you read the documents, you walk away thinking [state officials] don’t really intend to implement the policies in a meaningful way,” said Charlene Rivera, the director of George Washington University’s Center for Equity and Excellence in Education, which surveyed states’ testing policies in the 1998-99 school year.

Charlene Rivera

Ms. Rivera was one of more than 20 researchers and policymakers who presented information at a National Research Council forum here Oct. 14-15 on how to include limited- English-proficient students in standards-based reform efforts, particularly testing.

The meeting was the second in a series of discussions to be held over two years by the 11-member Forum on Educational Excellence and Testing Equity, appointed by the research council to identify significant testing issues.

Under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as reauthorized in 1994, states are required to include all students in their statewide assessments. Title I specifically requires “the inclusion of limited-English-proficient students who shall be assessed, to the extent practicable, in the language and form most likely to yield accurate and reliable information on what such students know and can do.”

The federal law leaves it up to individual states to determine policies on how to meet that requirement.

Of the 49 states (including the District of Columbia) that have statewide tests--Iowa and Nebraska are the exceptions--all but Alaska have a written LEP policy, according to Ms. Rivera. But many of the policies are so vague that they leave important issues unresolved.

For example, 14 out of the 48 states that have LEP policies on state assessments do not say how many years a student may be exempted from the tests. Twelve states don’t provide guidance on whether districts should make special accommodations for LEP students in test-taking, such as providing them with extra time, or with dictionaries to look up unfamiliar words. Thirty-five states do not say how the scores for LEP students who are included in tests should be reported.

One researcher at the forum said the study results took her back to her own past research on testing policies for students with disabilities.

“Many of these policies [for LEP students] are where disabilities policies were nine years ago,” said Martha L. Thurlow, the director of the University of Minnesota’s National Center on Educational Outcomes.

Over time, states have improved their policies on students with disabilities, Ms. Thurlow said, suggesting the same could occur for policies on LEP students. “Now when we look at guidelines [for students with disabilities], they’re more process-oriented,” she said. “They recognize a decision needs to be made, and it should be an informed decision.”

Presentations by officials from states with high percentages of the nation’s students with limited English skills showed they have taken very different approaches in incorporating such students into accountability systems.

Texas, for instance, tests some LEP students on academic-content areas in Spanish, while Illinois gives tests only in English. New York offers special accommodations to some LEP students, while Illinois and California do not.

A U.S. Department of Education official announced at the forum that states will be mailed a memo Nov. 1 that will guide them on how to include such students in state testing. She acknowledged that it took four years to complete the document.

The memo is intended to spell out legislative requirements contained in Title I, said Judith Johnson, the department’s acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

“We have begun to and continue to grapple with how to translate ‘to the extent practicable,’ ” Ms. Johnson said, referring to the language in Title I.

The memo encourages states to offer tests in a student’s native language if he or she receives instruction in that language. It also supports the use of test accommodations. The memo provides guidance on hypothetical scenarios, such as what a state can do to stay in compliance with Title I if it has an “English only” law.

Six million U.S. children, or 14 percent of the school-age population, are native speakers of languages other than English, Kenji Hakuta, a professor of education at Stanford University, noted at the forum.

Forty-five percent of those children have limited proficiency in English.

--Mary Ann Zehr


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