How State Assessments Became and Remain a Driver for Equity for English Learners
With so many students tuning into school remotely and a once-in-a-century pandemic furiously underway during the 2020–21 school year, some states and education leaders questioned the wisdom of administering end-of-year state assessments under those conditions. But even prior to the pandemic, efforts to move away from annually assessing students, opt out of testing, and limit the use of assessment data in school decisions were not uncommon. Skeptics, including teachers unions, argue that testing is burdensome for teachers and students, and that the results yield little information or that they are used inappropriately in high-stakes decisions. However, assessments have long served as a lever for equity in K-12 education, not least for the nation’s 5 million English Learners (ELs). It comes as no surprise that many civil-rights groups, including the nation’s largest Latino civil-rights organization, have deep reservations about reducing federal testing requirements. While states must continue to take steps to improve the quality and validity of their tests, watering down tests or dismissing them altogether may contribute to overlooking ELs and other students and misdirecting resources and support services away from where they are most needed.
As early as the 1970s, school districts began administering some of the earliest forms of English language proficiency tests to identify ELs and determine language support services. These early assessments were in response to the “Lau remedies,” or guidelines issued by an Office of Civil Rights task force in response to the Supreme Court’s Lau vs. Nichols ruling, which mandates school districts’ compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
It took until 1994 and the Improving America’s Schools Act for the requirement that states administer academic assessments to all students. Equity was a primary driver in ensuring all students—including ELs—were accounted for in state assessment results. Yet, states still routinely excluded ELs from statewide standardized testing, undermining efforts to understand these students’ performance. State policies for exempting students from testing were also far from transparent, adding more confusion. A review of state assessment systems under this 1994 law found 22 states, including California, deficient in including ELs in their state assessment systems. Nevada excluded 58 percent of its EL population, causing the U.S. Department of Education to conclude that the state was “effectively removing these students from measures of school progress.” Moreover, the National Assessment of Education Progress similarly excluded many ELs through the mid-1990s. Those included were more likely to be ELs who were most proficient in English.
As a result of this patchwork and inadequate testing regime in the states, most assessment data at the state and national level was highly skewed and yielded little information about the overall EL student population.
To address these loopholes, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in the early 2000s introduced annual assessments and tightened testing requirements to include all students. Notably, NCLB required states to test 95 percent of all students and within each major demographic group, including ELs. For the first time in decades, school systems were compelled to come to grips with how ELs fared academically and linguistically. This requirement was carried into the Every Student Succeeds Act, NCLB’s successor.
Today, assessments serve several purposes in the educational experience of ELs. School districts continue to use English Language Proficiency (ELP) assessments as a primary diagnostic tool to identify ELs as they enter school and to determine their eligibility for English language instructional supports. This assessment is also used to annually track their progression in learning English and to exit them from EL status. Finally, assessments in core content subject areas are used to monitor ELs’ academic growth and proficiency in key areas, such as English language arts, math, and science.
Do states have the right tests in place to accurately measure academic performance among ELs? To be sure, the existing assessment systems and instruments could be better. Native language assessments are not a panacea, especially for school districts where multiple low-incidence languages are prevalent or in which students do not receive instruction in their home language. But they are a critical component to a comprehensive state assessment system. In addition, there are ongoing discussions to make assessments more effective, equitable, and less burdensome for all students and educators.
While policymakers and stakeholders should interpret data from states’ 2020–21 assessments with caution due to states’ testing modifications and variable participation rates during the pandemic, the Migration Policy Institute’s initial review of state assessment results found that, generally, academic performance among ELs declined, especially in math, when compared to previous years. ELs also experienced setbacks in English language development, too, according to state data.
Finally, any discussion of assessments cannot be separated from how testing data are used and contextualized, especially in state accountability systems. Under ESSA, states are largely in the driver’s seat when it comes to designing their accountability systems, though testing data continue to be a primary component. Yet, if the pandemic has yielded any lessons learned, it is that it takes a lot more than assessment data to understand a student’s educational experiences. Throughout the pandemic, barriers to digital access, food and economic insecurity, and limited school-family engagement put ELs at a disproportionate risk of falling behind academically and in their English language development. Even prior to the release of states’ 2020–21 assessment results, there were early indicators of the disparate toll the pandemic was having on ELs, in the form of higher absenteeism rates, a decline in EL enrollment in schools, and falling course grades.
In the years that follow, it will be important to evaluate whether ELs are getting the supports they need to catch up to their peers. State assessment data, which are the only academic data that are widely available to community stakeholders and policymakers, will be critical to determining whether ELs are on the right trajectory to recover from the effects of the pandemic and remote learning. Not long ago ELs were invisible in this data, and therefore often overlooked altogether. The pandemic has underscored that, together with certain nonacademic data, state assessment data serve as a powerful tool to drive equity for ELs.