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Educators and State Policymakers Would Benefit from More Research, Federal Input in Shaping Use of Native Language Assessments for English Learner Students
Press Release
Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Educators and State Policymakers Would Benefit from More Research, Federal Input in Shaping Use of Native Language Assessments for English Learner Students

WASHINGTON — Educators and policymakers rely on standardized test scores to track how well public school systems are educating students, including those from traditionally underserved populations such as students of color and English Learners (ELs), and to target resources to low-performing schools. Yet test scores for ELs may not fully reflect how much they have learned if they cannot demonstrate their knowledge in a language they are not yet fluent in. For this reason, federal law has long allowed states to offer tests in students’ home languages—known as native language assessments—to more accurately gauge what students know and can do in academic subjects.

In the absence of clear research and limited federal input to guide implementation of native language assessments, states have come up with a mix of responses as to which students are eligible for such accommodations, what subjects are tested and in which languages the tests are offered. As of spring 2020, 31 states and the District of Columbia offered native language assessments, typically in Spanish, and most commonly in math or science but sometimes in reading/language arts and social studies.

A new policy brief from the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy offers an overview of how states can most effectively incorporate native language assessments into the accountability systems they have been required to set up under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

There are variations in how states design native language assessments, with some using direct translations of English-language standardized tests while others adapted to account for language differences; in some cases, students see only the native language version, while in others, they receive both that and the English version when taking a test.

Although research on the efficacy of native language assessments is limited in scope, studies suggest they are effective for ELs with low English proficiency and/or who are receiving instruction in their native language. The policy brief notes that further research and federal guidance on when and how to use native language assessments could better support state and local policymakers and school administrators, who currently have few tools to inform their decision-making.

“With high-stakes accountability likely to remain a fixture of the U.S. education system and increasing recognition of the value of multilingualism for students’ future and the U.S. economy, it is more important than ever to ensure that education policymakers have the means to capture a full and accurate picture of EL academic achievement,” the brief’s authors, Julie Sugarman and Leslie Villegas, write.

The brief is available here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/native-language-assessments-english-learners.

For the Center’s collection of work on English Learners and ESSA, visit: www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/nciip-english-learners-and-every-student-succeeds-act-essa.

And for a timely new commentary on how the COVID-19 pandemic, while challenging to all families may be particularly leaving EL students behind, check out: www.migrationpolicy.org/news/covid-19-inequities-english-learner-students.

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The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, DC dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels. MPI’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy is a crossroads for elected officials, researchers, state and local agency managers, grassroots leaders, local service providers and others who seek to understand and respond to the challenges and opportunities today’s high rates of immigration create in local communities.