Two important developments have impacted English Language Learners (ELLs) in U.S. public schools during the past decade. The first is that their performance on standardized tests has become a meaningful factor in mainstream school accountability systems, a change stipulated in the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The second is that their numbers have continued to grow substantially, to a population of well over 5 million children, more than 10 percent of all U.S. students nationally, with increases concentrated in particular states and metropolitan areas.
Both developments have contributed to a broadening understanding that the implications of this group’s academic progress extend far beyond their own diverse communities. To date, this has led to two results visible on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
First, English Learners are increasingly being included both on NAEP and in many state accountability systems. Nationally, the 24 percent of all English Learners who had been excluded from the fourth grade NAEP reading test in 2003 fell to 11 percent in 2011. Driving this trend were several states with the largest numbers of ELL students, particularly California, Arizona and Illinois. But other states, notably Maryland, New Jersey, Kentucky and Texas, continued their widespread exclusion of large portions of their ELL populations.
Second, results on NAEP reading for English Learners have ranged from flat to slightly improved over this period, with more substantial gains at the lower ends of the achievement spectrum: proficiency rates in reading have generally held at the same, low levels (7 percent nationally) while the percent of EL students testing Basic or above has increased slightly (from 28 to 30 percent) over this period.
Each of these results included large numbers of students who had previously been excluded from the test, although the effect of their inclusion is unclear. While it has often been the case on standardized tests that excluding the lowest-performing students has been a strategy for raising average scores, such “gamesmanship” has not been documented on NAEP.
Among those states that are home to most of the nation’s English Learners, California, which alone has one in four, reduced its exclusion rate from 12 percent in 2003 to 4 percent, while its rate of ELLs scoring at or above Proficient fell from 6 to 5 percent, and those scoring at Basic or above increased from 25 to 27 percent. Illinois reduced its exclusion rate from 46 to 8 percent over the same period, with testing outcomes virtually unchanged.
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