ELL Challenge Shows NCLB's Absurdities

K-12 Testing

The federal No Child Left Behind law has been lampooned for the absurdity of requiring all children to score "above average" on standardized tests. Among NCLB's absurdities, one stands out: requiring students who are not yet proficient in English to attain "proficient" scores on English-language tests.


Wayne Wright, assistant professor of bicultural-bilingual studies at the University of Texas, San Antonio, summarized the plight of limited English proficient (LEP) students: "Common sense dictates that if you administer a test to students in a language they don't understand, they probably won't do well on it. NCLB contradicts itself on this very point. The law describes a limited English proficient student as one 'whose difficulties in speaking, reading, writing, or understanding the English language may be sufficient to deny the individual the ability to meet the State's proficient level of achievement on State assessments' (Sec. 9101(37)). Nevertheless, NCLB mandates that English language learners do just that, and schools are punished if they don't."


The impossibility of getting students who are by definition not English-proficient to score "proficient" has prompted the U.S. Department of Education to relax some of its rules. For example, it now allows the scores of students who learn enough English to move out of the LEP subgroup to be counted toward the subgroup's Adequate Yearly Progress for up to two years. States can also exempt new English Language Learner (ELL) students from English testing for a year.


Many ELL advocates see these measures as entirely inadequate. Studies suggest that it takes five to seven years, not one year, for students to become proficient enough in academic English to understand assessment questions. This is not just an issue for English or reading tests. Students need substantial English language skill to comprehend many math tests. Moreover, counting for two years the scores of students who move out of the LEP subgroup delays but does not solve the problem that those who remain in the LEP group are by definition a group that fails tests of English proficiency.


Wright cites the experiences of Arizona teachers to show that, while the law requires states to test LEP students with "reasonable accommodations," it does not define these terms. Not only is there no way to monitor whether students are getting required accommodations, there is little agreement on what a reasonable accommodation is. Teachers Wright surveyed in 40 Arizona schools reported no consistency in the use of accommodations. Some teachers read questions aloud, others translated questions, and some allowed the use of dictionaries. But teachers observed that none of these approaches appeared to be that helpful. The result was that many students gave up or filled in answers randomly. A majority of teachers reported students crying, becoming visibly upset or physically ill.


At first blush, native language testing seems like a reasonable accommodation that would at least allow students to demonstrate knowledge of math, for example, without struggling with a foreign language. But few states have the resources required to develop and provide valid and reliable tests in all students' languages. And when students are taught math in English, it does not necessarily help to give them math tests in their native tongue.


The U.S. Department of Education is working with 24 states to develop better math and reading tests for LEP students. In the meantime, there is no moratorium on NCLB's requirements. As a result, schools continue to be labeled "in need of improvement" and vulnerable to sanctions because their LEP students do not score proficient.


Negative educational and emotional consequences for ELL students can be so severe that some advocates for ELLs have called for excluding them from testing until they are proficient in English. Others, however, believe such exclusion would doom efforts to address their educational needs, saying that those who are not counted will not be included.


The answer, some argue, is that assessment systems must be designed from the start with the needs of subgroups like LEP and disabled students in mind, something known as "universal design." Universal design proponents argue that the system can't work for states with diverse student populations unless it is designed with these subgroup populations in mind from the start. For example, test tryouts should include LEP students in the tryout sample and must include the use of accommodations during the test tryout.


Other experts say the nation must get away from simply relying on any one test, no matter how improved. In his testimony to the Education Committee of the New York State Assembly, Luis O. Reyes, coordinator of the Coalition for Educational Excellence for English Language Learners, explained that multiple sources of evidence provide a more valid and reliable way to assess ELLs. He quoted Professor Kate Menken of Queens College: "Multiple measures of student achievement such as portfolios, samples of student work, and classroom-based assessments should also be included in an accountability system, as together they are far more likely to offer an accurate picture of what an ELL student knows and is able to do."


- Wayne Wright, "A Catch-22 for Language Learners," Educational Leadership, November 2006; http://www.ascd.org/portal/site/ascd/index.jsp/.


- FairTest article "Assessment of ELL Students under NCLB: Problems and Solutions," http://www.fairtest.org/nattest/NCLB_assessing_bilingual_students.pdf