Since the creation in 2002 of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), accountability and assessment of public education in the United States has been based on annual standardized state tests. These tests have been used to determine the effectiveness of states, districts, schools, and teachers in helping students learn.
Public school students in the United States are given more standardized tests, and are tested more frequently, than students in any other country. The growth of testing has fueled the world of assessment and turned it into a billion-dollar industry.
The number of tests has affected English Language Learners (ELLs) in the U.S. who, in addition to the annual standardized subject matter tests, are assessed every year on their English proficiency. Under NCLB, states not only had to identify English learners but also had to create English proficiency standards along with assessments that reflected these standards. Every year ELLs have to take state tests to determine if they are making progress in learning English and in attaining English-language proficiency.
What the Research Is Saying
Some researchers have seen equity as one of the strengths of this type of assessment. In a recent article in Education Week, Randy Bennett, a research chair at the Education Testing Service (ETS), explained that testing every student every year enabled policy makers and educators to see how different demographic groups were doing in relation to each other: “We could know for the first time that a very good school was not performing so well when you looked at some of its demographic groups. If you care about equity, it’s a strength.”
Though this type of measurement allows us to understand the dimensions of student outcomes, using it to compare English Language Learners to more advantaged students actually has had a detrimental impact on ELLs. It has pushed them even further to the margins. ELLs are often unfairly assessed because they can’t demonstrate their content knowledge in their own languages. Thus, their inability to express themselves in English is interpreted—often by untrained teachers—as a lack of content understanding. This results in ELLs often being overrepresented in special education classes or in classes where they are not challenged enough by the classwork. Also, if ELLs are placed in an English-only classroom without the needed support, they can have a harder time understanding the material and keeping up with their English-speaking peers.
The focus of the assessment should be on inputs rather than outcomes. Inputs refer to the learning and development opportunities that a student has in his or her individual context. Assessments that address these inputs can be much more constructive and responsive to the individual learning needs of the student. This is especially true for ELLs who are trying to master English while at the same time trying to learn subject matter in English.
In his thought piece, Confronting InEquity/Assessment for Equity, H. Richard Milner, professor and director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh, defines equity in an educational context as “developing environments and systems in ways that provide students with what they need based on careful and systematic attention to the particulars of their situation.” He contrasts this with equality, which entails “providing them with the same, standardized set of conditions regardless of circumstances.” Milner sees a direct relationship between equity or the lack thereof, and the types of assessments teachers use.
What Should Happen Next
Assessments and assessment systems should be designed to help improve teaching practices that support student growth and diversity. The critical role of a teacher is to determine what students are or are not learning while motivating them to think critically and to build knowledge and 21st century skills. Well-designed assessments that support equity should gauge the learning, development, and improvement of the student over time; they should provide opportunities for individual feedback, so that teachers can adjust their teaching to the specific needs of students; and they should use tools as diverse as the student population itself.
An assessment approach that focuses on inputs rather than outcomes and is used by a teacher to tweak his or her teaching practices based on what the students know and what they have learned, makes sense for all students. But it will be particularly beneficial for ELLs, as it will enable teachers to come up with methods of teaching and learning that accommodate students’ learning needs and provide them with equitable opportunities.
Payan, Rose M. and Nettles, Michael T. (2008), Current State of English-Language Learners in the U.S. K-12 Student Population