It has become common, when discussing education in the No Child Left Behind era, to describe students, often English Language Learners in particular, “filling in bubbles on standardized tests.” Such conversations frequently consider whether the time students spend taking tests is excessive, whether the English-language exams are understandable to speakers of other languages, and, ultimately, whether “teaching to the test” is the right direction to steer American schools.
Given the significance of NCLB’s historic requirements linking federal school funding to students’ performance on standardized tests, such questions are vital. For English learners, this change has been especially dramatic, because that is the sector of American public education which for decades has had the least emphasis on students’ academic performance. It is with their interests in mind that the National Council of La Raza has repeatedly called for requiring schools to assess all English learners, and count their scores equally in their broader accountability determinations.
Designing new, effective assessments has been a major part of that challenge. Most states have adopted new tests for English learners, aligned with academic standards as NCLB requires, within the past two years.
Equally important, however, is that the preponderance of research regarding the best practices for teaching English learners finds that much success relies on the effective use of assessments to guide instruction. A 2007 report by the Institute for Education Sciences recommended that schools collect standardized testing data more than three times a year for English learners at risk for reading problems, and then analyze the data regularly to guide lesson plans.
Among California schools with large English learner populations, those where teachers and principals made regular use of assessment data to address particular student needs (and teacher strengths) were more likely to rank among the highest-performing students, according to a 2007 study by EdSource. Results were strongest where principals and teachers personally analyzed multiple sets of standardized test scores, including the state assessment as well as other exams implemented by school districts.
A study of Arizona schools with high levels of academic success teaching English learners found that the careful use of frequent benchmark assessments by teachers (weekly, monthly or quarterly) was a strong contributor to that effectiveness. “Beat the Odds” schools regularly employed specific interventions designed by teachers based on results from standardized tests.
Consistency is also essential. Recently, the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing found that consistency in assessment policies, from district to district and from school to school, was a major factor in achieving English learner success. Improving such consistency in line with state standards has been a hallmark priority for Education Secretary Spellings and her team of federal officials responsible for administering NCLB. Is it working? It is too soon to tell in most cases. But a strong body of education research indicates that this strategy is one worth sticking with.
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