States Scramble to Rewrite Language-Proficiency Exams
Education Week, December 4, 2002
By Lynn Olson
New ESEA States across the country are scrambling to craft better tests for
students with limited English skills in response to stringent new timelines
imposed by the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001.
As early as this week, the federal government was expected to award grants of up
to $2 million each to states working to improve their testing systems. At least
three consortia of states are applying for a chunk of the $17 million available
under the "enhanced-assessment grants" competition to design better tests for
English- language learners.
In addition, California and New York are preparing to unveil new
language-development tests of their own, while Massachusetts officials hoped to
announce a request for proposals late last month.
The No Child Left Behind Act, the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and
Secondary Education Act, requires states and school districts to test the
English proficiency of all English-language learners beginning this school year.
States, districts, and schools that receive money for language instruction under
Title III of the law must show annual increases in the number and percent of
students who become proficient in English, as well as in the number who make
progress toward that goal.
Title I of the law also requires states, districts, and schools to make yearly
progress in the proportion of limited-English-proficient students ho score at a
proficient level on state tests of academic content.
"The difficult piece has been the speed with which they want you to do this:
today," said Jeff Nellhaus, the state assessment director in Massachusetts.
New Tests Needed
A number of language-proficiency tests are currently on the market, such as the
Language Assessment Scales, published by CTB/McGraw-Hill, and the Woodcock-
Munoz Language Survey, published by Riverside Publishing/Houghton- Mifflin.
But "most of the instruments that are out there were not designed to evaluate
student progress," said Wesley D. Bruce, the director of school assessment for
Indiana. "They were more placement and diagnostic instruments."
Moreover, experts say, many of the tests are cumbersome or time-consuming to
administer. They don't provide teachers with enough information to improve
instruction. And they were not designed to reflect states' academic tandards.
Those tests also may not measure all five domains that the federal law requires:
comprehension, reading, writing, speaking, and listening.
"They're dated," said Charlene Rivera, the executive director of the Center or
Equity and Excellence in Education, based at George Washington university.
"There really hasn't been much development over the last decade or more."
California, an early leader among the states, has been working with CTB/McGraw-Hill
to write the California English Language Development Test since 1997. The state
is revising the exam to make it easier to administer and hopes to have it in
schools by June.
The initial version was administered to children one-on-one. "But once we
started using it statewide, then there were problems," said Jeanette B. Spencer,
an education consultant to the California education department. "A one-on-one
test for 1.5 million students," she said of the estimated number of
English-language learners in the state, "is asking a lot."
New York state has been working with the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational
Testing Service to devise a series of language-development tests for students in
grades K-12. The ETS, which has contributed at least $1 million toward the
effort, plans to make the package of tests, which can be customized, available
to other states and districts.
Mari A. Pearlman
Mari A. Pearlman, the vice president of the company's division of teaching and
learning, said the ETS has been working with teachers to make the tests
immediately helpful to them. "We actually asked teachers what they thought it
was relevant and important to know about language proficiency in kids," she
On the writing portion, for example, the scoring guide is designed to give
teachers a picture of a student's strengths and weaknesses as they score the
exam, "so at a glance, you can get some kind of instructionally useful
information," Ms. Pearlman said.
The ETS, which has spent more than $5 million overall on the development of
language-proficiency instruments over the past few years and expects to unveil
the exams in early 2004, is also designing professional development for teachers
linked to the assessments, said Ms. Pearlman.
What's more, the company is working with one of the consortia applying for
federal grants. Staffed by Accountability Works, a nonprofit policy research and
consulting organization based in Washington, the consortium includes Florida,
Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.
"We think that there's a need for new and better tests that are standards-based
and that are consistent with the best research," said Theodor Rebarber, the
president of AccountabilityWorks. "Part of our goal is to have these assessments
be useful not only for accountability, but also for supporting instruction."
The largest consortium, helped by the Washington-based Council of Chief State
School Officers, includes 16 states and the American Institutes for esearch, a
nonprofit behavioral and social-science research group also ased in Washington,
as the test-maker.
"This is probably the most intense thing I've ever seen," said John Olson, the
director of assessments for the council's State Collaborative on Assessment and
Student Standards. Leaders of the LEP- SCASS, as the project is known, have
organized the effort. He said they hope to have an initial test available by
Paul M. La Marca, the director of assessments for Nevada, the lead state in the
consortium, said the goals of such tests have shifted toward gauging how
students perform relative to state academic-content standards. "It's more for
instruction and accountability," he explained, "not simply for the lassification
of whether a student is limited-English-proficient or not."
Added Ms. Rivera of George Washington University: "The question always is, at
what point does a person have enough English to be able to appropriately and
validly take a content-area test," or participate in an English-only class in
math or science.
"It's been a question that a lot of people have been trying to understand
better," she said, "and no one has been able to really come to the point where
they say they have the magic answer."
In fact, research suggests a difference between the everyday- language
proficiency required in social settings and the more complex academic language
needed to succeed in school.
As an example, Ms. Pearlman points to the expression "greater than" in
"If you're just learning English, nobody uses the word 'great' anymore as a size
word," she explained. "So you can imagine how confusing this can be."
According to Frances A. Butler, a senior research associate with the Center for
the Study of Evaluation, located at the University of California, Los Angeles,
existing language-proficiency tests tend to focus more on the social or
conversational uses of language and less on academic language.
"Our research has indicated that, to some extent, there's a mismatch between the
content on the existing language-proficiency tests and the language that
students have to know on the large-scale content assessments hat they take every
year," she said.
"The existing language tests simply don't go far enough in providing the
formation we need," said Ms. Butler, "to know whether students can handle the
material that they need to be able to handle to do well in school. It's been a
problem for years. It's just that it's getting attention now because of No Child
Together with colleague Alison L. Bailey at UCLA's Center for Research on
Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing, Ms. Butler is trying to formulate a
framework for the types of evidence that test- developers should gather to help
design the next generation of language- proficiency tests. Those include the
language teachers use with students, the variety
of textbook materials, the language demands on tests of academic content, and
the language in state and national content standards.
Authentic Measures Missing
Measured Progress, a testing company in Dover, N.H., is working with a group of
Western states to pursue that idea of academic-language proficiency.
The company is working on a set of English-language-development standards and a
test design. "Our goal is to do so in the context of how students use English as
a speaking, listening, reading, writing, and comprehension skill within various
academic settings," said Edward Roeber, the vice president of new business for
"The shortcomings of some of the current measures are [in] their failure to
really put kids in authentic situations in a science class, in a social studies
class, in an English class, in a math class," he said. "Because they are more
generic measures of English, they fail to predict success in those academic
Scholars, however, warn that separating the language proficiency needed to do
well in specific content areas from knowledge of the content itself will be
Lyle F. Bachman, a professor in the department of applied linguistics at UCLA,
suggests that, in the end, English proficiency and content knowledge may be
inextricably linked, because language is essentially a tool used to process
information about specific content.
The more tasks are designed to isolate English proficiency, he suggests, the
more they look like nonlanguage. The more they are designed to measure
higher-order aspects of language use, the more they include topical knowledge
Meanwhile, test-makers and states are forging ahead. Harcourt Educational
Measurement plans to set proficiency scores for its new Stanford-English
Language Proficiency Test next month. The tests, which will be available in the
spring for grades K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9- 12, measure all the language skills
required under the ESEA using one instrument, as opposed to separate tests for
listening, speaking, and writing, said Diane Johnson, a senior ssessment
specialist for Harcourt.
"It's a very complete test," said Margarita Miska, a senior director for catalog
development. "We have done a lot of research on what teachers will need, based
on the new legislation."
"There's no doubt that major publishers will fill the void," said Mr. Bruce of
Indiana, a member of the CCSSO consortium. "But if you have one more potential
test to choose from, the likelihood that you'll get one that is
the best match for your state is improved."
Ms. Rivera of George Washington University warned that states have an even
tougher task ahead.
"The attention right now is on this idea of how do you assess language
proficiency," she noted, "and they really need to put as much attention, if not
more, on how to assess content for students who are English- language learners.
They need to place attention on how to include students appropriately in [state
© 2002 Editorial Projects in Education Vol. 22, number 14, page 10