Each year, thousands of immigrant students stream into schools across the country, barely knowing enough English to patch a sentence together. But within months, many of these students are faced with the challenge of taking a district or state standardized test.
More than five million students speaking a total of 400-plus languages are considered limited English proficient, according to the U.S. Department of Education. And numbers are rising.
As educators struggle to help these children learn English, No Child Left Behind makes that aim an urgent one. Under the law, schools must include these students in yearly progress reports based on standardized tests. If progression isn't demonstrated, schools can be placed on the federal non-performing list, and districts lose out on federal aid.
Below are some common questions about testing English language learners. Expect no easy multiple-choice answers.
Can we test limited English proficient students with exams designed for native English speakers?
Some educators say it is unfair to try to test ELLs using exams for students who have been speaking English since they were born. They say the problem is that the exams don't actually test what an English language learner may know about a subject, only what they know about English.
A recent study in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, where 18 percent of students are ELLs, found that immigrant students scored higher on tests given in their native language than tests given in English, even two years after they had become "proficient" in English.
"The English version is not accurately measuring what they know,'' says Joanne Urrutia, administrative director of the district's division of bilingual education and world languages. "A test in English is a test of English. If you are limited English proficient, you will have difficulties understanding the questions."
Because Florida students can be held back if they don't score well on statewide tests, educators must reconsider whether the tests are a fair measure of content knowledge for English language learners, Urrutia adds.
How does NCLB address testing issues for ELLs?
For the first time, schools are being required to teach English language learners academic English, not just conversational English, says Maria Hernandez Ferrier, deputy under secretary for the U.S. Department of Education. "The English that was being taught wasn't linked to the curriculum. It was playground English,'' she says. "This is a huge leap forward to insure that our children are successful, that they can take a content test."
New changes made to the law in late February, however, have given educators and students a bit of extra time for English language instruction and acquisition. During their first year of enrollment in U.S. schools, immigrant students can either take an English proficiency test or a reading/language arts content assessment. Participation counts--but their scores don't--in NCLB data that year.
One thing that hasn't changed: NCLB still allows states to provide accommodations for any student who is limited English proficient, Hernandez Ferrier says. While they are allowed to take tests in their native languages under NCLB, not all state testing systems have that option.
What accommodations can be used to help ELLs on standardized tests, and how effective are they?
Under NCLB, students can test in their native language for up to three years, take more time on the test and use bilingual dictionaries, Hernandez Ferrier explains.
But some ELL advocates say that three years isn't enough time for many immigrant students--who may have had no previous formal education in their native countries--to become proficient in academic English or acclimate themselves to taking standardized tests.
And they say the accommodations are not very helpful. "You are taking a test not crafted for English language learners and trying to retrofit it through accommodations. It is a real Band-Aid,'' says Margo Gottlieb, director of assessment and evaluation at the Illinois Resource Center. "Many states are using identical accommodations for students with disabilities and English language learners, but their issues are not the same," adds Gottlieb, who is also lead test developer for the Wisconsin, Delaware and Arkansas Consortium.
She suggests educators use a series of assessments specifically designed for ELL students as they progress with their language skills. To that end, Gottlieb is developing a standardized, centralized bank of assessment tasks that are grounded in academic content standards but specific to this group of students. The tasks focus on interrelated activities relying on graphic and visual content and oratory support instead of dense texts. States in the consortium will eventually be able to access the database of these tests and craft their own assessments.
With so many other issues surrounding ELL education, how much of a priority is assessment?
Many districts are swamped by a rapid influx of English language learners, making the task of teaching and assessing the students arduous. In Brunswick County School District in Bolivia, N.C., for example, the number of English language learners has jumped in the past year from 100 to more than 300.
Administrators in school systems like that one are scrambling to establish bilingual programs and train their teachers to work with these students--let alone figure out how to assess the students or prepare them for statewide tests.
In Salt Lake City School District, where limited English proficient students make up about 37 percent of the population, administrators have addressed their needs in a holistic way. School improvement plans begun six years ago include a focus on ELL issues.
Under the plans, all teachers received three days of specialized training to help in devising lesson plans for language learners that emphasize visual aids, peer tutoring and identification of key content vocabulary. The district also hired paraprofessionals and teaching assistants who speak Spanish or other languages.
Though ELLs are not assessed in their native languages, the increased instructional attention to their needs by classroom teachers is making a difference in test scores. In the past year, English proficient students have even improved scores on standardized tests at a more rapid rate than their counterparts, district officials report.
"In the school improvement plans, a number of things came to the surface [that] we think made a difference for our ESL kids,'' says Patrick Garcia, an assistant to the superintendent. "The added attention is contributing to why kids are making greater gains."
Fran Silverman is a freelance writer based in Norwalk, Conn.