Lost in Translation ... at a Cost: With the Pressure to Measure the Abilities of All Students-Including English Language Learners-How Do Districts Fare in Making Assessments Fair?

By Silverman, Fran | District Administration, April 2004 | Go to article overview

Lost in Translation ... at a Cost: With the Pressure to Measure the Abilities of All Students-Including English Language Learners-How Do Districts Fare in Making Assessments Fair?


Silverman, Fran, District Administration


Each year, thousands of immigrant students stream into schools across the country, barely knowing enough English to patch a sentence together. But within months, many of these students are faced with the challenge of taking a district or state standardized test.

More than five million students speaking a total of 400-plus languages are considered limited English proficient, according to the U.S. Department of Education. And numbers are rising.

As educators struggle to help these children learn English, No Child Left Behind makes that aim an urgent one. Under the law, schools must include these students in yearly progress reports based on standardized tests. If progression isn't demonstrated, schools can be placed on the federal non-performing list, and districts lose out on federal aid.

Below are some common questions about testing English language learners. Expect no easy multiple-choice answers.

Can we test limited English proficient students with exams designed for native English speakers?

Some educators say it is unfair to try to test ELLs using exams for students who have been speaking English since they were born. They say the problem is that the exams don't actually test what an English language learner may know about a subject, only what they know about English.

A recent study in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, where 18 percent of students are ELLs, found that immigrant students scored higher on tests given in their native language than tests given in English, even two years alter they had become "proficient" in English.

"The English version is not accurately measuring what they know," says Jeanne Urrutia, administrative director of the district's division of bilingual education and world languages. "A test in English is a test of English. If you are limited English proficient, you will have difficulties understanding the questions."

Because Florida students can be held back if they don't score well on statewide tests, educators must reconsider whether the tests are a fair measure of content knowledge for English language learners, Urrutia adds.

How does NCLB address testing issues for ELLs?

For the first trine, schools are being required to teach English language learners academic English, not just conversational English, says Maria Hernandez Ferrier, deputy under secretary for the U.S. Department of Education. "The English that was being taught wasn't linked to the curriculum. It was playground English," she says. "This is a huge leap forward to insure that our children are successful, that they can take a content test."

New changes made to the law in late February, however, have given educators and students a bit of extra time for English language instruction and acquisition. During their first year of enrollment in U.S. schools, immigrant students can either take an English proficiency test or a reading/language arts content assessment. Participation counts--but their scores don't--in NCLB data that year.

One thing that hasn't changed: NCLB still allows states to provide accommodations for any student who is limited English proficient, Hernandez Ferrier says. While they are allowed to take tests in their native languages under NCLB, not all state testing systems have that option.

What accommodations can be used to help ELLs on standardized tests, and how effective are they?

Under NCLB, students can test in their native language for up to three years, take more time on the test and use bilingual dictionaries, Hernandez Ferrier explains. …

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