English-Language Learners

Testing Burden on ELLs Needs Easing, Federal Officials Say

By Corey Mitchell — February 03, 2015 3 min read
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Libia Gil, the head of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of English-language acquisition, says she’s working with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to ease the burden of testing for English-learners and their teachers.

“We do believe in annual testing, but we also believe there’s overtesting. It’s coming from all over. You have state assessments, you have local assessments, you have classroom assessments—some for different purposes, not all for accountability,” said Ms. Gil, a veteran bilingual and dual-language educator who came to OELA in September 2013.

“Too much testing that’s not meaningful and not helpful, we don’t support that,” Ms. Gil said last month in an interview with Education Week. “What we do support is very clear, precise measures. That challenge is to [determine] what are the most reliable and credible assessments.”

In addition to annual tests in English/language arts and mathematics, English-learners are tested on their progress toward proficiency in their new language. Though Mr. Duncan has said scaling back testing demands is a high priority, how he and Ms. Gil will reduce the load for ELLs remains to be seen.

Tests in Native Languages?

The Obama administration still maintains that testing all students, including ELLs, annually in reading and mathematics is critical for measuring progress. In recent hearings, the U.S. Senate education committee has debated whether to dump federally mandated annual tests in a proposal to rewrite the No Child Left Behind law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Libia Gil

Since his time as the CEO of Chicago’s public schools before he became education secretary in 2009, Mr. Duncan has argued that ELLs should be allowed to demonstrate their content knowledge on tests in their native languages. New York and some other states already provide some tests in native languages.

When students with low English proficiency take math exams, they may not understand the test directions—one example of a language barrier that keeps them from demonstrating their skills. By definition, ELLs are “not yet actually ready to access math and English-language content,” said Conor P. Williams, a senior researcher for the Washington-based New America Foundation.

But agreement on a national framework to test ELLs’ content knowledge has yet to emerge.

Efforts to make the new common-standards tests developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium more accessible to ELLs were field-tested last spring.

But as states have dropped out or scaled back their roles in the consortia, fewer English-learners may have access to those tests, and it’s not clear what kinds of test supports states would provide in their place. That flux has created uncertainty.

“The common-core tests haven’t hit the ground, and there’s already so much confusion and lack of information,” said Giselle Lundy-Ponce, an associate director of the American Federation of Teachers’ educational issues department.

A 2013 AFT study found that in two medium-size districts, the time students spent taking tests ranged from 20 to 50 hours per year in heavily tested grades. In addition, students could spend 60 to 110 hours a year focused on test preparation. That’s precious time lost for ELLs, said Ms. Lundy-Ponce.

“Rather than being diagnostic, [standardized testing] punishes the teacher,” Ms. Lundy-Ponce said. “For the students, grade-level content won’t be picked up by being drilled for a test.”

The Education Department’s recent decision to grant Florida flexibility in how it assesses English-learners, which will allow the state to wait until ELLs have been in U.S. schools for two years before their scores are used for accountability, could signal a step away from high-stakes testing for the subgroup, or be an unintentional “red herring,” Mr. Williams said. Florida’s victory may not pave the way for flexibility in other states, he said.

Federal officials have not said that Florida’s case would apply elsewhere. It seems the state’s dogged focus on testing helped its cause.

Ms. Gil said: “They do annual assessments far beyond what is expected of them.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 04, 2015 edition of Education Week as Testing Burden on ELLs Needs Easing, Federal Officials Say

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