English-Language Learners

Should ‘English-Only’ States Test ELLs in Their Native Languages?

By Corey Mitchell — March 12, 2019 4 min read
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A pair of bills introduced in the Florida legislature would allow English-language learners to take state tests in their native languages, bypassing a key provision in the state’s Every Students Succeeds Act plan.

The state, which educates more than 300,000 English-learners in its public K-12 schools, has resisted translating its state tests into Spanish or any other language despite language in the federal education law that directs states to “make every effort” to do so. Dozens of states have laws or constitutional amendments on the books that establish English as their official language; several of those states, including Florida, were able to get their plans approved without adhering to that part of the law.

The issue is personal for state Sen. Annette Taddeo. Born in Colombia to a Colombian mother and Italian-American father serving in the U.S. Air Force, she lived there until she moved to Alabama at the age of 17 with “very limited” knowledge of English.

“I actually went through the excruciating pain of being tested in English,” said Taddeo, who introduced the Senate version of the bill. She represents southern Miami-Dade County in the legislature.

To this day, Taddeo said she keeps the paper with her ACT test results as a reminder that she’s more than a score. She scored an 8. The highest score is 36 and the national average is about 21.

“It was like a motivator for me to do more with my life and to make sure that other people didn’t have to go through what I had to go through to prove my worthiness,” Taddeo said.

Rep. Cindy Polo, a Democrat who represents parts of Broward and Dade counties, introduced companion legislation in the state’s House of Representatives.

Activists lobbied the U.S. Department of Education department for years to require that the state provide native-language testing of English-learners, but Education Secretary Betsy DeVos ultimately sided with Florida K-12 officials and their plan to meet the requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Taddeo’s bill would allow school districts to bypass the state’s plan and request test translations for their English-learner students.

Native-Language Tests Are a ‘Crutch’

While Taddeo is optimistic about her bill’s chances, it faces several hurdles to approval, starting with leadership in the state Senate. The education committee chairman, Republican Sen. Manny Diaz, said in 2017 that he doesn’t think the state should translate tests for English-learners.

“It becomes a crutch for students,” Diaz, a former teacher and assistant principal in the Miami-Dade schools, told Education Week.

At most, a test’s directions should be translated for students, Diaz said.

Florida currently allows teachers to answer questions about directions or specific words or phrases in the student’s native language.

Education Week could not immediately reach Diaz for comment on Taddeo’s legislation.

While ESSA directs states to “make every effort” to develop statewide tests in students’ first languages if they constitute a significant portion of the student population, the law does not explicitly require the native-language assessments, which would measure students’ knowledge and understanding of state academic content standards in that primary language.

While research has found that using an English-learners’ home language in school can benefit students, Florida has adopted different approach.

In its ESSA plan, the state maintains that giving assessments to students in their native languages would impede their ability to demonstrate their knowledge of English.

English-learner advocates, including UnidosUS and the Florida chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, argued that Florida’s ESSA plan bypassed the law’s requirement for native-language tests.

“Clearly, the state of Florida has asked for a waiver to not test, to not do what federal law says we should do, which is to test them in their native language,” Taddeo said.

Florida is one of at least seven states that opted not to offer native-language assessments, with some making the argument that the costs of the tests would outweigh any potential benefits. But none of them have as many English-learners as the Sunshine State, where more than 10 percent of all K-12 students are classified as English-learners.

In certain parts of the state, including south Florida, English-learners are a much larger portion of the student population: One in four students in the Miami-Dade County school system is an ELL.

Taddeo is concerned about migrants and other English-learners who arrive in U.S. schools as teenagers and are pressured into alternative programs or GED programs or discouraged from enrolling in school altogether.

“These are minors and they should be educated and they should not be sent to [these programs], but they are, many of them,” Taddeo said.

Here’s a copy of the state Senate version of the bill.

Related Reading

Some States With ‘English-Only’ Laws Won’t Offer Tests in Other Languages

Thousands of English-Learners Fall Short on Test of Language Skills

Activists to DeVos: Hold Firm and Reject Florida’s ESSA Plan

Third Grade Retention of ELLs: New Research Sparks Furor

Photo Credit: Kevin Marroquin, left, who is from Honduras, looks around the ELL classroom while his classmate Deyvin Santos, from Guatemala, gets help from their teacher, Laurinda Flores. --Andrew Innerarity for Education Week

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