Tests of Youngest English-Learners Spark Controversy
Mary Ann Zehr
At a time when many states are poised to roll out new standardized tests to
evaluate English-language proficiency in unprecedented depth, California is
balking at carrying out a federal requirement to test the literacy of young
children who are learning English.
In a unanimous vote last week, the California board of education decided to ask
the U.S. Department of Education to exempt the state€™s English-language
learners in kindergarten and 1st grade from being tested in reading and writing,
as required under the No Child Left Behind Act.
California officials argue that their school's€™ current practice of testing
such children only in listening and speaking should be sufficient. Schools in
the state enroll about 30 percent of the nations€™s 5.5 million English-language
â€śYou can imagine the amount of time it would take to give the assessment,â€ť
said Deb Sigman, the state testing director for the California Department of
Education. â€śWe think itâ€™s in the best interest of students that that time be
focused on instruction of those preliteracy skills.â€ť
Meanwhile, many other states are gearing up for new exams to assess
English-language learners of all agesâ€”including kindergartners and 1st
gradersâ€”in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. For the youngest of
them, some test developers have designed assessments that must be given
one-on-one and could take up to an hour and a half for a single child, though
they arenâ€™t expected to be given in one sitting.
The tests for young children, planned to start next spring or next school year
in many places, measure such factors as whether a child knows that English is
read from left to right and can recognize letters of the alphabet or single
words, rather than whether the child can actually read or write, test developers
The No Child Left Behind Act requires states to include English-language
learners in the statewide assessments given to all students in grades 3-8 and
high school. But in addition, states must test English-language learners in
grades K-12 each year on their English proficiency.
In California, officials do not want to alter the California English Language
Development Test to include reading and writing sections for kindergartners and
1st graders, Ms. Sigman said. The sections, she said, would need to be
Ms. Sigman said the federal requirement for English-proficiency testing puts an
extra burden on young English-language learners that their
native-English-speaking classmates donâ€™t have to deal with. She pointed out
that the No Child Left Behind Act does not require standardized testing of
native English-speakers until the 3rd grade. California starts all children with
such testing in 2nd grade.
Kathleen Leos, the associate deputy undersecretary in the office of
English-language acquisition in the U.S. Department of Education, declined to
comment last week on Californiaâ€™s request for a waiver from the testing
requirement for young English-language learners. She said the department hadnâ€™t
yet formally received it.
But Ms. Leos reiterated the importance of the requirements. I'm assuming
classrooms will be doing an ongoing assessment [of English-language learners],
so you know where your students are and what your students understand over a
period of time,"she said.
The discussion on the national level about the requirements of the No Child Left
Behind Act for English-language learners has focused on Title I, the section of
the law governing aid for disadvantaged children.
Under Title I, English-language learners must take standardized state
mathematics tests in the first round given after they enter U.S. schools. They
have to take state reading tests in the first administration given after theyâ€™ve
been in U.S. schools for a year.
Previously, many states didnâ€™t include English-language learners in statewide
assessments until they had attended U.S. schools for three years.
Under the No Child Left Behind law, schools must break out the test scores for
English-language learners. That provision has garnered lots of attention, given
educatorsâ€™ concerns that schools can be penalized if such studentsâ€”like
other subgroups, such as pupils with disabilitiesâ€”donâ€™t meet the â€śadequate
yearly progressâ€ť goals set by their states under the federal law.
But behind the scenes, educators who work directly with English-language
learners have been equally worried about complying with the law requirements for
testing such students for English-language proficiency.
In the past, federal law required schools to test the language proficiency of
all English-language learners, but it didnâ€™t specify how to do that.
The NCLB law, a 3-year-old overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education
Act, spells out for the first time that schools must test them annually in oral
language and reading, as well as writing. The law says the English-proficiency
tests were supposed to be in place by the 2002-03 school year, but in many
states that didnâ€™t happen.
The act also says states must report English-proficiency scores to the federal
government. And it says states must establish standards for raising the
proficiency of English-language learners and align those standards with state
Testing experts say most of the English-proficiency tests used to date wonâ€™t
cut it anymore.
â€śThe old tests werenâ€™t anchored in standards,â€ť said Margo Gottlieb, the
developer for a consortium of nine states and the District of Columbia led by
the Wisconsin education department that has created an English-proficiency test.
They had very low ceilings that werenâ€™t rigorous. We had no idea if a child
shown to be proficient in English would succeed in math or science.
Like California, up until now, states have tended to test young English-language
learners only in listening and speaking, though they did test older children in
One at a Time
Test developers are now taking pains to produce English-proficiency tests
that will measure the skills of young children in four domains of English.
Representatives of four consortia of states developing tests said that in
kindergarten, at least, the tests will be administered one-on-one.
The consortium that Ms. Gottlieb is working with has devised a separate version
of its test just for kindergartners that will be given individually. The test is
expected to take about an hour if the child knows enough English to stay with it
until the end.
Four of the states in the consortium Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and
Vermont expect to roll out that test in grades K-12 next spring.
The Mountain West Assessment Consortium, a group of 11 states, has produced a
version of its English-proficiency test for kindergartners and early 1st graders
that will also be administered individually. That test is estimated to take
about an hour and a half.
Two consortia of states have designed versions of their English-proficiency
tests for youngsters in kindergarten through 2nd grade. They are a 14-state
consortium led by the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers
and a five-state consortium managed by AccountabilityWorks, a nonprofit
organization based in Washington.
The CCSSO consortiumâ€™s English-proficiency test for grades 3-12 will be ready
in the spring, but the K-2 part of the test wonâ€™t be out until next school
AccountabilityWorks plans to have its test, which is being developed by the
Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service, ready for all grades in the
One commercial test developer, Ballard & Tighe, has gone beyond the requirements
of the No Child Left Behind Act to include prekindergarten in its new
â€śWhat we see is that state and federal funding is being given to pre-K
programs as well,â€ť said Sari Luoma, the director of assessment for the Brea,
Calif.-based Ballard & Tighe. â€śThe need for assessment at the pre-K level will
rise.â€ť Vol. 24, Issue 12, Pages 1,16
The company Ballard & Tighe has created a version of its new English-proficiency
test for English-language learners in preschool and kindergarten. The examiner
verbalizes what's written in bold.
Now I will show you some words and pictures. You will read a word and point to
the picture for the word. Let's do one example. Show the sample question. Look
at this word. Point to the word "Dog." What does it say? Wait for the student to
read the word. If student does not read it, read the word aloud while pointing
to each letter. It says "DOG," "DOG." Point to the picture. Now point to the
picture for "DOG." Wait for the student to respond. Use follow-up question if
necessary. If the student does not pick the right picture, point to the picture
of the dog. This is a dog. OK. Ready? Let's read some more words.
If the student does not respond within five seconds or if the student only reads
the word aloud but does not point, say, Can you please point to the picture for
Reading-Test Sample SOURCE: Ballard & Tighe