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Spring 2001 Vol. 1 No. 1

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©PhotoDisc Putting English-Language Learners to the Test

Are Standardized Assessments Setting These Students Up for a Fall?

In a country that has attracted millions of immigrants in the past century, U.S. schools have long been faced with the challenge of teaching children who are not fluent in English and educators have addressed the issue in different ways over the years. The current climate of school reform, however, has led states to set tough new academic standards and create tests in math, science, and other key subjects to hold all students accountable for meeting those standards. But many people have raised concerns about testing students for whom English is a second language.

Nearly 3 million children who are not fully proficient in English are enrolled in the nation's schools. Under what conditions, and for what purposes, should they be tested? Furthermore, what should be made of their scores? Some states make accommodations for such children, but the policies and goals for testing them vary widely across the country.

How educators address these issues may have lasting effects on students' academic progress. For example, low test scores from assessments that were used improperly with non-native speakers could serve as the basis for flunking students, a practice that often compounds the difficulties of children who are at risk of academic failure, studies show. Researchers, educators, test developers, and others must continue to seek better ways of assessing English-language learners to make sure that their academic needs are being met, concludes a new report from the National Research Council.

To be sure, kids who are still learning English have complex and varied needs. They must master not only conversational English, but also formal, academic English -- which can take non-native speakers four to seven years, on average. Moreover, such students also need to advance in other subjects and receive high-quality instruction to help them meet required standards, said the committee that wrote the report. Disentangling these students' progress in English from their academic performance in other areas is difficult because oral and written English are essential tools used in many types of academic work.

The committee urged researchers to focus on ways to improve or expand existing assessment strategies that gauge English and other academic skills, or create new approaches. In addition, it called on federal and state policy-makers to consider measures that would encourage the consistent collection of data over many years on the overall progress of non-native speakers, both while they are in school and after they enter the work force. Such long-term tracking would allow researchers to more closely evaluate educational programs and methods.   -- Vanee Vines

Testing English-Language Learners in U.S. Schools: Report and Workshop Summary. Committee on Educational Excellence and Testing Equity. Division on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (2000, 58 pp.; ISBN 0-309-07297-2; available from National Academy Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $18.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was co-chaired by Ulric Neisser, professor, psychology department, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., and William T. Trent, professor, educational policy studies department, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education.

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Copyright 2001 by the National Academy of Sciences