In the ongoing debate between accountability and flexibility in teaching and learning, the pendulum might be swinging toward more testing for English Language Learners (ELLs), even as states dial back standardized tests for regular education students.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed into law in December of 2015 and goes into full effect for the 2017-2018 school year. Some of its biggest changes will be felt by ELL students who are working to become fluent in English while they keep up with the rest of their academic studies.
ESSA updates and replaces many elements of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law of 2001. In general, the new law gives states increased flexibility in setting their own educational goals and designing assessment systems to measure progress. It even allows states to cap the amount of time students spend taking standardized tests each year.
That’s an exciting change for teachers who have long complained about having to teach to the test, losing days or weeks of class time while focused on testing. As American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten put it:
“Under the newly passed ESSA, high-stakes testing and sanctions are no longer the be-all and end-all in education.”
The Exception to the New Rule? ELL Students
While ESSA is generally a cause for celebration for those who favor more flexibility in assessment and less testing overall, the law actually increases accountability for schools when it comes to measuring the progress of ELL students.
ESSA requires annual English proficiency assessments to track ELL student progress. It also requires states to standardize the ways they identify eligible ELL students and decide when they are proficient enough to leave the program. That extra English proficiency testing requirement is in addition to annual state exams already in place to measure general education progress. This results in a double-dose of standardized testing for a group of students that can often ill-afford to lose valuable class time — especially if English isn’t spoken at home.
Though states are permitted to choose their own English proficiency tests, 35 states plus the District of Columbia are members of the WIDA Consortium, a cooperative group dedicated to promoting education equity for ELL students. WIDA has developed the ACCESS test, a proficiency exam that measures growth in speaking, listening, reading and writing. This exam is used measure proficiency and, in many cases, it is the sole method of determining when students are ready to exit ELL programs.
ACCESS Testing in Practice: A Tale of Two Schools
Because the ACCESS test measures all four domains of English learning — speaking, listening, reading and writing — it is time-consuming to administer, and portions of the test require one-on-one test sessions. At the William H. Lincoln School, a public K-8 school in Brookline, Massachusetts, ELL teachers are responsible for scheduling and administering the tests to their students.
ELL teacher Gretchen Thompson explains that she and her colleagues come back from the holidays in January to a flurry of activity that includes arranging materials, placing sticker labels on test booklets, printing test tickets for online tests and ordering additional test booklets.
“We essentially suspend regular instruction for three to five weeks for testing,” said Thompson.
“This can be challenging for newer students, as they miss their ELL class contact and support. It’s also challenging for homeroom teachers who have to differentiate for ELLs more than usual.”
Because ELL teachers at Lincoln are the ones administering the ACCESS tests, ELL students miss 15 to 25 ELL class periods during the testing period. Though the test itself doesn’t take that long for any one student to complete, their ELL classes are canceled for weeks as the teachers test other students in the building. Kindergartners and Special Education students are tested one on one in all four domains, which adds to the administration time. To alleviate some of that burden, Brookline is transitioning to online testing for students in grades 3 through 12.
ACCESS testing at the high school level is also time-consuming, but finding time for the required exam may be easier because students in all grades follow the same master schedule. At one high school in the Merrimack Valley of northeastern Massachusetts, the ESL Department Chair works to schedule ACCESS testing so that the majority of students complete the test in one week, with testing scheduled during the ESL class whenever possible.
Though she works with staff and administrators to minimize the loss of instructional time as much as possible, the students miss on average eight to 10 classes. The Department Chair estimates that the typical ELL student at her school misses five ESL courses and three to five other academic courses.
As in Brookline, technology may also help ease the burden on students. The 1:1 program at this Massachusetts high school allows other academic teachers to keep up with their ELL students on testing days by sharing lessons, activities, and assignments online.
The Bottom Line for ELL Students
With the new ESSA law mandating annual testing for English Language Learners, these students are likely to face additional time out of class, even as states move away from high-stakes testing in other areas. Missed class time means fewer opportunities for direct instruction in English for the students who need it most, so schools will have to get creative to schedule tests appropriately and support ELL students on their journey toward proficiency.