Assessing English Language Proficiency and Program Effectiveness

It’s that time of year again when English Language Learners all across the country are being assessed to determine their level of proficiency in listening, speaking, reading and writing. In North Carolina we use the ACCESS test for this purpose. The name of the test is an acronym for “Assessing Comprehension and Communication in English State-to-State”).

Every year teachers around the country wonder about the effectiveness of such tests. We have all had the experience of seeing a student exit ESL services only to flounder in the regular classroom for reasons that we all understand: the student was not ready to function like a native speaker, yet is expected to do so because of having exited ESL services.

While this problem is present in every state, regardless of the test used, it is particularly acute in North Carolina because our state does not follow the recommendation of the designers of the test regarding exit criteria. WIDA (World-class Instructional Design and Assessment) recommends that the test be used as one criterion among several, and that a student not be exited with a composite score of less than 5 out of 6 on the ACCESS test. North Carolina uses the test as the only criterion and exists students with a composite score of 4.8.

What is the the effect of this decision on students? Denying students the support they need before they have an adequate grasp of academic English sets them up for failure. A student who can carry on a perfectly sensible conversation with teachers and sound fluent, often still lacks the academic vocabulary essential to success in school. Teachers are well aware of this and frequently lament a student exiting the ESL program when it is clear the student is not ready.

Financial Incentives to Underserve Language Learners

Why would any state decide not to follow the recommendations of the designers of the test in terms of exiting children from ESL services?

Meeting the needs of second language learners is expensive. It requires additional training for classroom teachers, hiring language acquisition specialists in every school district—sometimes several per school—and purchasing expensive curricular materials. By lowering the bar for exiting its ESL program, a state can “save” a massive amount of money.

Intentionally underfunding services to language learners, however, would show a blatant disregard for what federal courts have determined to be the rights of these students. So the question in the case of North Carolina becomes whether the State is aware of the damage its early exit decision is creating. This should not be a difficult question to answer, given that regular evaluation of the program is mandated by the courts and North Carolina’s own data show quite conclusively that its approach to meeting the needs of language learners is weak at best.

Mandate for Ongoing Evaluation of Programs

Court cases related to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act have established precedents to guide the way districts address the needs of ESL students. In Castañeda v. Pickard (1981) the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit outlined a three-point test to evaluate ESL programs:

  • The program a district selects must be recognized by relevant experts as a legitimate approach to language access. (It must be “based on sound educational theory”).
  • The district must provide adequate resources to implement the approach it has selected. (The program must be “implemented effectively with resources for personnel, instructional materials, and space.”)
  • The program must be evaluated on an ongoing basis. If students are failing to make adequate progress, the program must be improved until it can be proven effective.

The U.S. Department of Education has provided further guidance in a document entitled “The Provision of an Equal Education Opportunity to Limited-English Proficient Students“. In its effort to comply with these guidelines, North Carolina has been conducting the required evaluations for many years now, yet the graduation rate of English Language Learners still lags far behind the average for other groups of students. In 2016 North Carolina’s overall high school graduation rate was 85.8%. The graduation rate for students who had qualified as English Language Learners at some point in their school experience, though, was much lower: 57.1%. (See NC’s own publication of its graduation rate data.)

How can we consider this a program that has been “proven effective”?

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