New research on state test scores by the Center on Education Policy confirms what some observers had predicted: that changes made in federal education policies for English learners as part of the No Child Left Behind Act have produced substantially higher test scores overall for this critical, growing student population. An analysis of testing data from 2006-08 published in April shows that, while huge achievement gaps persist, the new reality that English learners’ test scores reflect on the ratings of the schools they attend has begun to produce improved results.
More than 70% of states with sufficient data showed significant gains in the percentage of English learners scoring proficient in reading and math at the primary and middle school grades. Secondary schools showed slightly smaller gains. At all grade levels and subjects tested, more states showed gains than declines.
This progress is even more impressive considering that the percentage of English learners whose scores were being counted for the first time grew substantially – by more than 20% in 19 states. This was driven partially by changing population dynamics. But in many states, new federal requirements that all children be tested using the same accountability rules led to large increases in children being included.
Illinois set the pace nationally in this area, with new state testing policies resulting in an astounding 1,141% increase in the number of fourth grade English learners tested in reading statewide (1,188% on math). Prior to 2007, the state had kept these students segregated in a different accountability system using an alternative test – a system rejected as out of compliance with federal law.
Not surprisingly, adding such a large number of previously uncounted students produced lower group test-score averages, at least initially. In Illinois, results were complicated by state board of education changes to definitions for proficiency, effectively lowering the minimum passing scores.
These results roughly mirror those on the national test known as the Nation’s Report Card. Nationally, the percentage of English learners scoring basic or better in fourth grade reading increased slightly from 2005 to 2009. But the percentage of English learners asked to sit out the testing jumped from 2 to 16. In Illinois, the percentage of fourth grade English learners scoring basic or above on reading increased from 18 to 30. But this good news was compromised as the number of these same children who were excluded from the test grew also grew, from 3 to 20 percent.
States with the most English learners generally showed the largest improvements. This is especially significant because English learners, especially in California, have been shown to be concentrated in high-poverty, low-performing schools. This contributes to an environment of linguistic isolation, lower graduation rates, and ultimately reduced earning power and other negative economic implications that affect the broader communities in which they live. But as these test score findings demonstrate, greater inclusion of English learners in mainstream school accountability systems is essential to improving their results.
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