States and Districts Face Decisions on the Subject of ELL Assessment

Student taking multiple choice standardized test on scantron.

The risks in high-stakes testing can be even higher for English Language Learners (ELLs) than for their English-speaking counterparts. In most states and districts, an ELL’s performance on the state’s standardized test can determine where the student falls on the ELL scale and what kinds of classes they will take.

A student who is moved into a regular class too early can struggle; too late and they can become frustrated because the work has become too easy. This school year is the calm before the storm. Next year, states that have backed one of the two next-generation assessment consortia, PARCC and Smarter Balanced, will enter the first official year of implementation. A period of adjustment will be needed.

ELL challenges can be overcome

Unfortunately, ELL students don’t have the luxury of time for that period of adjustment. There are already concerns that the next-generation assessments will be harder on ELLs than the previous, state-authored assessments. To their credit, Smarter Balanced has made an effort to level the playing field by translating the test into ten major languages. PARCC has no such plans and has left it to the states to decide how to treat ELLs.

One district’s response

But that’s next year. This year California, a state with one of the highest percentages of ELL students, instituted a moratorium on all standardized testing until their new, Smarter Balanced-authored test is ready. Again, ELL students do not have the luxury of time.

To remedy the situation, the Los Angeles Unified School District has made its own English proficiency test. If what they see from their next generation assessment is unacceptable to their ELL needs, they may keep their own test for those purposes. You might see other districts and states follow suit, either with their own tests or by adopting national proficiency tests like ACCESS (Assessing Comprehension and Communication in English State-to-State).

Moving forward

No matter the test, the question will always be how do we best prepare our English-learning students for success, not just on standardized testing but also in class and beyond?

This assessment debate reflects how many groups view language education: as an afterthought. With our English-learning population growing exponentially, districts and states would benefit from a streamlined, unified approach to meeting the needs of these students.

Fortunately, technology is quickly accelerating learning by shrinking the achievement gap these students face in their English proficiency. Once that gap closes, these students’ language abilities will be a valuable asset in the 21st century international economy.

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