Flexibilities provided by the federal government and states for annual English learner proficiency assessments have been useful during the pandemic, but some EL experts say obstacles for in-person testing mean fewer students will be assessed and that the data collected may not be reliable.
Specifically, districts are struggling to coordinate staff time, student transportation, adjustments in class schedules, pandemic precautions and more in order to conduct in-person, multi-day EL proficiency assessments.
Although states were able to waive the requirement for EL annual proficiency assessments last spring, the U.S. Department of Education has not eased the testing requirement for the 2020-21 school year so far, and many states are in the process of assessing or soon will assess students.
David Holbrook, executive director of the National Association of English Learner Program Administrators, describes the situation as a Catch-22 scenario because although the Education Department is allowing schools to use modified ways to identify EL students this school year, there has not been guidance on alternate methods for administering the required statewide annual proficiency assessments.
In guidance issued Jan. 18, the Education Department said states may adjust their proficiency testing windows. The department also said states have the discretion to administer the proficiency assessments in person or remotely. EL experts, however, say most states use the WIDA ACCESS assessment, which does not have a remote option and typically is given to students in shorter timed sections over multiple days.
There were more than 5 million ELs in U.S. schools during the 2017-18 school year, according to the Office of English Language Acquisition. According to data collected that year, 14% of ELs attained proficiency in English, 27% made progress and 34% of ELs did not make progress or attain proficiency. Widespread online learning due to the pandemic has been most difficult for ELs, immigrant students and students from low-income families, research has shown.
Oakland Schools in Waterfold, Michigan, is an intermediate school district (ISD) that works with 28 districts and 25 public charter schools with a collective EL population of 14,000, said Suzanne Toohey, Oakland Schools’ instruction and pedagogy supervisor and ESL consultant.
Toohey said the agency’s modified process for screening and identifying ELs has been effective. It even led the ISD to develop a model form for collecting and organizing comprehensive student screening data that includes interviews with students and families. Properly identifying English learners allows schools to provide those students with services they are entitled to under federal law, which includes the acquisition of the English language in a timely fashion and the guarantee of participation in core content, Toohey said.
The annual assessment process this year has been much more cumbersome, Toohey said. Although the testing window has been extended and the state is planning to request a waiver from the EL proficiency assessments, school systems are moving forward in planning the logistics for the assessments.
That includes contacting remote students’ parents — in their native languages — about the testing, organizing transportation and on-site meals, planning safety protocols that include the cleaning of each computer and manipulative used for the assessments, scheduling staff to conduct the assessments, and trying not to disrupt the time students are in core academic classes, Toohey said.
The communication with families is especially difficult. While the schools are required to administer the assessments to every EL student, they don’t want families who are uncomfortable sending their children to school for the in-person tests to feel forced to do so.
“It feels for our EL people, who are already stretched thin, like double pressure,” Toohey said.
Typically, data from the proficiency assessments yields valuable information that can guide individualized student instruction and district-wide planning and training, she said.
“We don't know what the data will give us this year because the instruction has been so intermittent… and kids have been through a lot of trauma,” Toohey said.
Deborah Wilkes, ESL program coordinator for Cumberland County Schools in Fayetteville, North Carolina, also worries about the reliability of the testing data compared to the logistical and emotional costs of testing students this year. The school system has nearly 1,500 ELs representing 87 native languages, Wilkes said.
Students have been learning virtually since the pandemic began. The district is planning to reopen campuses March 15, but one-third of the EL student population is electing to continue learning from home, Wilkes said.
And while Wilkes said teachers are trying their best to provide online instruction and students have a lot of potential and an eagerness to learn, there are some students who have had a difficult time following instruction online.
“We know they haven’t progressed,” WIlkes said. “We know they are even falling behind. The [assessment] data will show us how much.”
But because the students haven’t been at school in-person since last year’s EL proficiency assessment was administered, the data from this year’s test, compared to baseline information from last year’s test, could be unhelpful and even harmful, she said. “I really, personally, don't think that the benefits we will get from the testing of these students outweighs the dangers,” Wilkes said.
However, one silver lining in the struggle to figure out how to safely identify and assess EL students this year has been the coordination and collaboration between district offices as they collaborate to find solutions, Wilkes said.
“Ultimately, our goal is to do the very best, and the safest course of action, for our students and then educators, given the current circumstance. And unfortunately in some respects, that is conflicting with what the requirements are,” she said.