High-stakes Testing and the ELL Population
- Author: Fred A., Teacher
- State: NY
- Date: August 1 at 12:05 pm ET
There is no doubt that the New York State mandate requiring that all students pass five Regents Exams in order to graduate from high school, has become the foundation of language policy for most high schools that service a significant population of English Language Learners (Ells). As demonstrated in Kate Menken’s article, Teaching to the Test: How No Child Left Behind Impacts Language Policy, Curriculum and Instruction for English Language Learners, many high schools focus the courses of study prescribed for Ells, on preparing them to pass these exit exams. These mandates were presumably instituted in order to hold teachers and schools accountable for providing the same quality of education for students of all classifications. As Menken states however, “it is primarily the students themselves that are being held accountable” (2006, p. 523). It is here that the culture of assessment truly becomes a problem, in the extent to which the students assume the pressure to meet state and federal mandates designed to justify politically motivated, pedagogical ideologies.
In my experience, “teaching to the test”, does not have to be a negative thing. If preparing students for a particular assessment simply means using the specific content as a focus for language instruction, it can in fact be a positive thing. Using a comprehensive assessment such as a Regents exam, as a guide for the skills, standards and content on which to focus, can represent a valuable resource for teachers across the disciplines. As Menken discovered in her doctoral research study, the school that decided to address the skills of the ELA Regents by providing its Ell population with extended Native Language Arts (NLA) instruction, succeeded in improving the overall test scores of this struggling demographic, while enhancing language proficiency and literacy in both languages. On the other hand however, when test preparation devolves into a cycle of formulas and test- taking strategies, even those students that succeed do so at the expense of healthy academic development. What is clear though, is that in all cases, even those with positive outcomes, the stress and anxiety that accompanies high-stakes testing transforms the culture of a school building, which should be focusing on intellectual development, to one that stresses data and test results.
This was the first year that we offered NLA instruction in my school. The idea, just as that of the positive example in Menken’s article, is that students develop their literacy skills and language proficiency in the native language, so as to make an easier transition to higher level, academic tasks in English. My students learn to write the same kinds of essays that they will encounter on the ELA regents in Spanish, having done their reading, analyses and discussions in Spanish as well. They develop proficiency in these tasks during the course of the year as they grapple with language acquisition. Since I also teach two ELA classes in the same space, there is a good deal of posted material in both languages: word walls, posters and student work in both languages throughout the classroom. This, I believe is an ideal environment for students engaged in the process of language acquisition. My classroom is a safe-haven, in which they encounter the complexities of academic English daily, but are free of the pressure to master it in order to achieve academic success.
At the end of the year however, as soon as the spring break ended in April, the test preparation fever took over the building. What was a safe and intellectually- enriching environment became the site of language support for all Regents- related content. Teachers sought my assistance in reinforcing essay structures and content integration strategies. Students sought my help in reconciling the large amount of information they’d accumulated in each language, so as to make it coherent and easily relayed in just one language. The stress was palpable and the pressure that Ells suffer, to meet academic requirements while struggling to acquire the language, became a fixture in my classroom, as it had been in the others. Though they were allowed to take all of their exams, except the ELA Regents, in Spanish, most of their instruction during the course of the year was conducted in English, with ESL support. Their content retention was scant at best and their conceptual understanding was lacking as well. The test days were stressful for students and teachers. Several students gave up and left them unfinished, while others that had been through the process several times with little success, broke- down emotionally. The results were poor overall for the Ells, with some notable successes. For many of seniors, graduation had to be postponed and the possibility of graduating at all seems unlikely.
The not so simple answer for a school system facing the particular challenges of preparing Ells to pass these tests in order to graduate, lies in the subtle application of a variety of learning models as they apply to individual student needs. Having once been an ELL that benefitted greatly from total immersion, I have to admit that the approach has its place. By the time I completed the first grade, I was as proficient in reading and writing English as any of my peers (at least to all appearances). On the other hand, my personal teaching experiences have shown me that older students require sustained and rigorous content instruction in their native languages in order to keep pace with their English speaking peers during the language acquisition process. If Ells are to be expected to meet these mandates in order to graduate, Bilingual Education should consist of individual education goals, tailored to the needs and capabilities of each student. Schools with extensive ELL populations should have equally extensive Bilingual Education departments, replete with Assistant Principals, data specialists, specifically certified teachers, curriculum, resources, etc. ELL students will continue to lag behind their mainstream peers until they are addressed as individual learners with specific needs and unique academic goals. The culture of high-stakes testing will therefor, continue to marginalize these students while failing to provide them with the quality of education for which they are being assessed.