Schools across Illinois, especially those with large populations of English learners, are suddenly facing more than the usual uncertainty about how their students will fare on standardized tests this spring. That is because this year, it appears that these students will be required to take the same standardized tests as other children, the ISAT and PSAE. Many of them will receive certain, special testing accommodations, which vary widely.
Late last year, the Illinois Department of Education declared that its Illinois Measure of Annual Growth in English (IMAGE) could no longer be administered as part of the regular state assessments for English learners. A U.S. Department of Education review had raised serious problems with the test’s validity.
It determined IMAGE to be problematic for various reasons, including that it was not fully aligned with state reading standards, as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Part of the problem, according to federal reviewers, was that the test’s passing, or cut, scores were based on past scores, rather than on acceptable standards for academic performance. The state is reportedly developing a new test for English learners, which may be ready next year.
The Illinois Department of Education has published guidelines for the use of special testing accommodations. But it has not issued a list of approved accommodations, nor does it appear to keep track of how, and with what frequency, these are being utilized across the state, making meaningful comparisons between schools and school districts difficult.
Although this situation is troubling, problems with Illinois’ system of accountability for this crucial, growing student population are nothing new.
State law requires schools to offer “transitional” bilingual education whenever there are 20 more English learners with the same common language enrolled. But in 2005-06, barely a third of students exiting bilingual programs had succeeded in demonstrating adequate English skills to transition out properly. This number was under 30 percent in the Chicago Public Schools.
Numerous reports have observed that bilingual education classes in Chicago function in relative isolation from mainstream school activities, compared with other large, urban school districts. Problems with the consistent reporting of school data, especially for English learners, are commonly cited.
It is because of this checkered past that English learners in Illinois have much to gain by being included fairly in standardized testing and meaningful school accountability alongside other students. The state’s education policymakers face an important opportunity to fix a broken system, so that real classroom learning can finally count for all English learners, just as it does for other students.
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