US: States adopt New Tests for English-Learners

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Jan 24 15:12:56 UTC 2007

States Adopt New Tests for English-Learners
Changes aim to meet federal requirements, though some protest.
By Mary Ann Zehr

Officials in several Virginia school districts are up in arms, but most
state and local education leaders appear to be complying with demands by
the federal government to change how they test English-language learners
this school year. In at least seven states, thousands of English-learners
will face a differentin some cases, harderreading or mathematics test for
accountability purposes this year under the federal No Child Left Behind
Act. The seven are among 18 states that received letters from the U.S.
Department of Education last summer saying their testing systems would be
rejected unless they could resolve federal objections to how they test
students who are still learning English, according to Catherine E.
Freeman, a special assistant to the assistant secretary for elementary and
secondary education in the Education Department.

At issue is whether the alternative tests being offered by those states
are comparable to the regular state reading and math tests being used to
test other students for adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the No
Child Left Behind Act. Some of the 18 states, such as Oregon, are
conducting comparability studies to try to satisfy federal officials.
Others still are trying to figure out what to do. In some sense, dropping
those tests that lack comparability is a good thing, because we really
dont know what they are measuring, said Jamal Abedi, an education
professor at the University of California, Davis, and a specialist in the
assessment of English-language learners. However, he said, validity is
even more important than comparability, and some states may be sacrificing
validity by dropping alternative ways of testing English-learners.

Ms. Freeman said the Education Department is not overlooking the
importance of validity. She noted that states often were asked to show
validity as well as comparability. But some district officials are
resisting what they believe are unreasonable federal demands. The federal
government has told Virginia it must stop using its test of
English-language proficiency to calculate AYP in reading for beginning
English-learners. But the Virginia congressional delegation has written a
letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings asking for a
one-year delay in changing the states testing policy. A similar request by
Virginia education officials was denied in a Dec. 11 meeting, but the
federal government has not yet rejected the request in writing. ("U.S.
Rebuffs N.Y., Va. on English-Language Learners," Dec. 20, 2006.)

Statewide, about 10,000 students have been taking the
English-language-proficiency test as a substitute for the regular reading
test, according to Teddi Predaris, the director of services for
English-language learners in the 164,000-student Fairfax County district.
Last week, the school board of the Harrisonburg, Va., public schools voted
unanimously not to go along with the federal requirement. Whats right for
children is not placing an inappropriate test before them, said Donald J.
Ford, the superintendent of the 4,400-student school system, who
introduced the resolution to the board. The school boards in Virginias
Arlington and Fairfax counties soon are expected to consider similar
resolutions that resist the federal requirement for testing beginning

You dont give kids a test in reading when they cant read the language, if
you expect to get anything out of it, said Robert G. Smith, the
superintendent of the 18,400-student Arlington public schools, who is
leading the push in his district to resist the change in tests.

Most-Common Practice
By far, the most common way for states to include English-learners in
large-scale testing is to give them regular state tests with
accommodations, said Patrick Rooney, a senior policy adviser for the
federal Education Department. Such accommodations could include extra time
or the use of a dictionary.

Indiana, for example, dropped its only alternative test for
English-learners, a reading and mathematics test that included student
portfolios, after the federal government said the state hadnt demonstrated
that the alternative was comparable to Indianas regular tests. Nearly
4,400 English-learners took the alternative test last school year,
according to Wes Bruce, the assistant superintendent for the Indiana
Department of Education. Indianas 22,000 English-language learners who
were tested in September, after the alternative test was dropped, scored
worse than they did the previous year in reading at every grade level
tested, from grades 3-10.  The portion of students who passed dropped
anywhere from 3 percentage points for 3rd graders to 13 percentage points
for 8th graders.

In addition to Virginia, four statesMinnesota, Nebraska, New York, and
Texasbegan using English-language-proficiency tests as substitutes for
regular reading tests for some English-learners at some point after
enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act five years ago. Minnesota, New
York, and Texas now have dropped that practice. Nebraska has yet to decide
what it will do. Ms. Freeman said federal officials have made it clear
that, at least in the short run, its not an option for states to use an
English-language-proficiency test instead of a regular reading test for
NCLB accountability purposes. So far, states havent been able to show
comparability and alignment for such tests, she said.

Ellen Forte, a consultant on testing and accountability for the
Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers and a participant
in the Education Departments peer review process of state testing systems,
says the federal government is right to focus on comparability.

In the past years, states simply did not offer legitimate alternative
assessments for English-language learners, ones that were designed to
address the access challenges that these students face and allow them to
demonstrate what they can do, she said.

Other Alternatives
While the federal government hasnt outright rejected any other form of
testing alternative, states nevertheless have been forced to stop using
some alternatives because they couldnt satisfy federal officials concerns
about comparability.

In addition to Indiana, three states stopped using portfolio tests or
tests with a portfolio component this school year. North Carolina,
however, managed to submit enough evidence to get a checklist test, which
has a portfolio component, approved by the federal government.

Illinois is continuing this school year to use a plain English test for
English-language learners in math and reading, though the federal
government hasnt yet approved the test. About 50,000 of the states 165,000
English-language learners take that test every year.

And at least eight states, including New York and Texas, will continue
this school year to provide tests for some grades or subjects in a
language other than English, most commonly Spanish.

Federal officials emphasize they are willing to work with states to
continue exploring the best way to meet a difficult testing challenge.

Ms. Freeman, of the Education Department, points to the LEP Partnership, a
federal initiative announced in July, as a way for state and federal
officials to examine alternative ways to include students with limited
English proficiency in large-scale testing.

Also, last October, the department gave $1.8 million to a consortium of 14
states and the District of Columbia to develop an alternative test for
English-language learners, essentially a plain-English test. According to
Timothy J. Boals, the director of that consortiumcalled World-Class
Instructional Design and Assessmentthe test be implemented in 2010.

Vol. 26, Issue 20, Pages 26,31


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