Assessment and Accountability of English Language Learners

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This paper discusses the current demographic situation in U.S. schools, No Child Left Behind's impact, forms of assessment (proficiency and portfolio), and instructional techniques for English Language Learners.

Assessment and Accountability of English Language Learners

The United States is experiencing an explosion in the English Language Learner (ELL) population. According to the data, more than one in eight people in the United States are of Hispanic origin (mostly of Mexican, Central and South American, Puerto Rican, or Cuban origin). This population tends to be geographically concentrated in the western and southern parts of the United States. A large portion of Hispanics are under the age of 18, foreign-born, and live in live inside central cities of metropolitan areas. Their households tend to be larger than that of non-Hispanic Whites. The high school graduation rate for Hispanics is very low, and college graduation rate is even lower. This population has a higher unemployment rate, usually live in poverty, and those employed tend to be in service occupations making less money (Jimenez 2008).

As of 2004, there were over five million ELLs enrolled in public education; which is a dramatic increase than previous enrollments. The enrollment is increasing dramatically each year. Thirteen states have increases in enrollment over fifty percent. The greatest ELL boom has occurred in Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Georgia. The fastest growing language group is Spanish by far. Vietnamese and Hmong rank second and third in population distribution (Jimenez 2008). There is a sense of urgency in the schools to properly acclimate these students into American expectations.

To hold schools accountable for educating these children, and all students, the government created the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. Until the revision, high stakes testing is conducted in grades 3 through 8. Schools that do not make the specified scores (in reading and math) will receive increased monitoring and students will be provided with alternative locations for public education. In the past, ELL students were not included in critical assessments because of obvious language issues. Schools were not holding high enough academic standards in comparison to grade level expectations and essentially "dumbed" down the curriculum to accommodate these students. ELLs were not fairly represented in the decisions being made from the test results. Currently, ELLs are evaluated (with modifications) in NCLB testing and are represented in the data, but that has not eliminated concerns and has rather created challenges.

As just stated, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requires all districts and schools receiving Title I funds (including my school) to meet state "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) goals for their total student populations and for specified demographic subgroups, including major ethnic/racial groups, economically disadvantaged students, limited English proficient (LEP) students, and students with disabilities. If these schools fail to meet AYP goals for two or more years, they are classified as schools in need of improvement and face consequences. Schools are facing increased testing, and thus purchasing and exploring assessment boosting resources to close the achievement gap.

Testing and assessment can vary from just the NCLB required test. Teachers need to use various assessment techniques because testing alone cannot accurately evaluate students, especially the English Language Learners (Noyes, 2010).

An initial placement test must be administered to determine the level of English proficiency, assessment of the student's home language proficiency, previous schooling, academic level, family history, background, reason for immigration, and previous literacy skill levels. Language proficiency testing is a complex undertaking that continues to stir much debate among language researchers and test developers. Major differences of opinion concern the exact nature of language proficiency and how to best assess it. More importantly, while this debate takes place, educators are pressed into choosing and administering language proficiency tests to make programmatic decisions about limited English proficient students. There are multiple assessments available to test English Language Proficiency Tests described in the Handbook of English Language Tests.

Basic Inventory of Natural Language (BINL) is used to generate a measure of the K-12 student's oral language proficiency. The test must be administered individually and uses large photographs to elicit unstructured, spontaneous language samples from the student which must be tape-recorded for scoring purposes. The student's language sample is scored based on fluency, level of complexity and average sentence length. The test can be used for more than 32 different languages. The test administrator must be able to speak the non-English language well enough to administer the test in a valid and reliable manner. The author estimates the average administration time to be about 10 minutes per student.

Bilingual Syntax Measure (BSM) I and II are designed to generate a measure of the K-2 student's oral language proficiency; BSM II (1978) is designed for grades 3 through 12. The oral language sample is elicited using cartoon drawings with specific questions asked by the examiner. The student's score is based on whether or not the student produces the desired grammatical structure in their responses. Both the BSM I & BSM II are available in Spanish and English.

Idea Proficiency Test (IPT) is designed to generate measures of oral proficiency and reading and writing ability for students in grades K through adult. The oral measure must be individually administered but the reading and writing tests can be administered in small groups. In general, the test can be described as discrete-point, measuring content such as vocabulary, syntax, and reading for understanding. All forms of the IPT are available in Spanish and English.

Woodcock-Muñoz Language Survey is designed to generate measures of cognitive aspects of language proficiency for oral language as well as reading and writing for individuals 48 months and older. All parts of this test must be individually administered. The test is discrete-point in nature and measures content such as vocabulary, verbal analogies, and letter-word identification. The Language Survey is available in Spanish and English.

Language Assessment Scales (LAS) are designed to generate measures of oral proficiency and reading and writing ability for students in grades K through adult. The oral measure must be individually administered but the reading and writing tests can be administered in small groups. In general, the test measures content such as vocabulary, minimal pairs, listening comprehension and story retelling. All forms of the LAS are available in Spanish and English.

In the Clark County School District, the Language Assessment Scales (LAS) test is used for the identification of ELL students. The LAS tests it is used for different purposes such as: assessing the learner's language proficiency, placement decisions, reclassification, monitoring progress over time and pinpointing a learner's instructional needs. The test has adopted various commonly accepted discrete point and open-ended methods for assessing literacy skills such as the use of multiple choice, true and false, fill in the blank, sentence completion and short essay test formats. The authors maintain that the test design of these two tests was guided by the review of various state guidelines, curriculum guides, expected learning outcomes and the scope and sequence of many commonly used ESL instructional programs.

After proficiency is initially assessed, teachers begin trying to accelerate language acquisition. Students arrive at different levels of English proficiency. There are four stages in oral language development according to the lectures. The first stage, of infants and toddlers, is the silent, pre-production, or comprehension stage. The second stage is early speech emergence, followed by speech emergence, and intermediate fluency is stage four. The sequential order of language development is listening, speaking, reading, and then writing (Jimenez 2010).

Students, although not infants or toddlers, will enter the classroom in the "silent period." The Silent Period is the time the learner simply listens and absorbs the sounds and rhythms of the new language. S/he is internalizing how to make a sentence and may seem anxious when asked to speak.

The ELL learner's attitude and motivation will have a big impact on language acquisition (Jimenez, 2010). Success may be motivated by instrumental/integrative attitudes and intrinsic/extrinsic desires. Learners that are instrumentally and intrinsically motivated do very well acquiring a new language in contrast to those that have the other form of motivation. In addition, the ELL learner's willingness to adapt to the new the target culture will increase or decrease the social distance. Teachers and classmates can really help positively influence these students.

Jim Cummins, sited often by Ms. Jimenez in the lectures, explains why a student fluent in spoken English may have difficulties learning to read and write English. The difference between social language (everyday conversational language) and academic language (school tasks) makes all the difference. Social language is usually acquired within two years, whereas academic language can take five to seven years. Cummins' second language framework shows how teachers can move students from social language to academic language using activities of varying complexities.

Teachers and students now have access to things that were out of reach in previous years to make the transition from social language to academic language easier. There is no need for a teacher to "recreate the wheel" when it is already existing on the web. Everything from authentic material for language learners, lesson plans, ideas, exercises, assessment tools, and other materials for use in classrooms are available on the internet. Online language tutorials, exercises, and tests are accessible. Hundreds of online lessons, games, and quizzes are obtainable in many different languages. Teachers can even create their own personalized interactive language learning activities on the Web and not use pre-made materials that are not suitable for his/her students. Technology supports many effective strategies, such as using nonlinguistic representation, helping students recognize patterns, giving them opportunities to practice communicating complex ideas, allowing teachers to participate in ELL instructional chat rooms, and bringing their home culture into the classroom through digital images, music, and other media.

The only thing stopping a teacher could be his/her own technological abilities, time to learn new technology, and access to computers. If the teacher breaks through those barriers, various technological tools are available such as discussion boards and Weblogs, HTML, JavaScript, RealAudio, and CGI scripts can be used to create dynamic, interactive, and functional lessons. The web has taken differentiated instruction to the digital level for students that have brains that are hardwired to media (Blecher-Sass and Russell-Fowler, 2010).

The brain is very malleable and shapes through experiences and learning. Researchers have learned that it is no longer the question of nature vs. nurture when it comes to cognitive abilities. Currently, it is known that the formula should really state nature plus nurture is needed for strong cognitive abilities. Teachers must use activities that activate the entire brain. For example, a students' vocabulary acquisition could be enhanced when it is embedded in real-world complex contexts that are familiar to them.

Brains, just like people, are not the same. There are differences among males/females, hemispheres, and additionally the brain changes of the course of a life time. Teachers must plan for different learning styles using various groupings, materials, and time frames. The learning styles are not a matter of choice, but rather the wiring of the child's brain (Noyes, 2010).

Brain research is advancing. It is clear from the research that the brain looks for WIIFM ("What's in it for me") (Blecher-Sass and Russell-Fowler, 2010). An assessment alternative that addresses this is the portfolio assessment. If the ELL students are assessing his/her samples of work according to the clearly stated criteria, then it makes the portfolio very dynamic. Students are empowered to learn to monitor their own progress and take responsibility for meeting goals. This self-assessment (documentation, comparison, and integration) can lead to students that are responsible for their learning; have broader views of the learning; and get a developmental perspective on their learning.

There are three different types of portfolios. Showcase portfolios display a student's best work or finished products, and may not successfully illustrate student learning over time. Collection portfolios contain all of a student's work, and are also called a working folder. It is not carefully planned or organized for a specific focus. Assessment portfolios are focused reflections of specific learning goals that contain systematic collections of student work, student self-assessment, and teacher assessment. Shows growth over time and items are selected by teacher and student.

Portfolio assessments enable students to become self-directed learners who monitor their own progress. The portfolio can be used to show how far a student has come toward meeting classroom or program goals. The selected pieces show whether the standard or goals need to be revisited. It is important for students to select pieces in order to monitor their own progress and take responsibility for meeting goals set jointly with the teacher. Teachers are to prepare for the conference in advance by reviewing each student's portfolio and planning to make some positive observations regarding it organization and contents. The conference should begin by asking the student to reflect on their own growth and the status of their goals in regard to learning objectives. The teacher should be careful not to put the student on the defensive. It is advisable to prepare a portfolio review guide that has some of the questions that will be discussed in the conference beforehand.

Each entry in the portfolio should be selected and evaluated with both student and teacher input in the form of rating scales, rubrics, or checklists (Noyes, 2010). There are three different types of rubrics just for analyzing the ELLs writing assignments. The criteria for holistic scoring rubrics are based on ratings that vary depending on the developmental nature of the writing. It allows the teacher to look at the total quality of written text. Analytic scoring rubrics can be used when a teacher needs to analyze the separate features of a composition. This helps give students specific positive feedback on specific aspects of their writing and the teacher diagnostic information for planning instruction. Summary evaluation rubrics provide students with feedback on their summaries by scoring the accuracy of the main ideas and important supporting information represented. Teachers can modify this rubric to emphasize the parts of summarizing that are most important to the content objectives. The rubric or checklist evaluated portfolio can travel to the next grade level or school.

Additional accommodations could be made for ELL testing, such as: giving additional time to take the test and additional time for breaks during the test; administering the test in a small group or in an alternate location; allowing the test proctor to repeat or explain test items and directions; translating the test into the students' native language and administered by an ESL/bilingual educator; and allowing ELLs to respond to test items in their native language, or dictate their responses to a test administrator. These accommodations must be chosen wisely and the data collected read carefully to produce the results.

Other ideas for teacher implementation to enhance instructional delivery before assessments include: encouraging students to develop literacy skills in their native language, then transfer these skills to learning English; drawing on their background experiences and encouraging connections between academic concepts and students' own lives; connect with students' families and culture; use effective strategies such as project-based learning, thematic instruction, and cooperative grouping to engage learners; and finally, use wide-ranging assessments, including observations, portfolios, and performance assessments (Noyes, 2010 and Jimenez, 2010).

Overwhelmingly ELLs receive lower grades, are judged by their teachers to have lower academic abilities, and score below their classmates on standardized tests of reading and math. To be successful, teachers must draw from a range of research-based assessment strategies and a variety of instructional delivery techniques to support ELLs in building language proficiency.