Standardized Exams Should Allow For Limited-English Kids

Make tests meaningful

Standardized testing, conducted yearly, holds educators accountable and shows clearly what is working and what is not working in public schools. Tests allow comparisons of how individual students, schools and districts are doing and give early warning of problems. A welcome new state law requires such testing of California public school students in grades two through 11. The law also requires that nearly all students, including most bilingual students, be tested in English.

School superintendents in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and San Diego have a legitimate complaint that their districts will not be accurately assessed if the results of non-English speakers are included in the overall scores. They argue that test results should be reported separately for English speakers and non-English speakers. Theirs is a fair argument, although separate scores must never be used as an excuse for why any group cannot do better.

English test scores of children whose native language is not English and who don’t read it well are expected to be lower than the scores of children who do fully understand English. Reporting the scores without distinction, as currently proposed by the state, would distort the overall results. A compromise should be worked out quickly with the governor’s office–without the delay of lawsuits–to allow the testing to proceed.

The law requires tests in English for all children except those specifically exempted by the law because they are limited-English speakers enrolled for less than a year in California public schools or they are in special education classes. This requirement will allow the state to determine the level of English proficiency among students and which bilingual approach is working.

In California, where nearly 25% of the state’s 5.6 million public school students are classified as limited-English students, why not just do this: Follow the law and test all students in English; separate out the scores of non-English speakers and test them, when practical, in their native languages. That way the overall score is not falsely lowered by the inclusion of the many children who cannot fully understand English, and the other test will give a better sense of the academic performance of limited-English students as well. If the two-pronged approach is taken initially, educators will have clear measurements for all children, measurements for which they can be held accountable. And if school districts truly hold steady academic improvement and command of English as standards to be met, second-language testing should eventually become unnecessary except for the newest immigrants.

The problem of determining the best way to report the results for non-English-speaking students is a thorny one, but there is no question that California has to get regularly administered standardized testing underway. Most other states have tested for years and can make comparisons that California can’t even attempt.

The first year’s results will provide a baseline; parents and other members of the public will closely watch for improvement, which they will cheer, or for slippage, which can then be nipped early. No matter what language children speak when they start school, their academic progress must be measured.

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