New Approach to Testing English Learners Needed, Study Says
California’s one-size-fits-all approach to testing English learners in public schools is deeply flawed, according to an analysis published in the prestigious Review of Educational Research by Occidental College education professor Ronald Solórzano.
“It’s an ‘opportunity to learn’ issue,” says Solórzano, who spent 13 years in Los Angeles Unified School District classrooms and eight years as a consultant to Educational Testing Services (ETS), the nonprofit that develops and administers the SAT and AP exams.
“Not every child has the opportunity to learn the material that will appear on standardized tests because much of their time is focused on learning English,” he said. “It borders on unethical that we’re using the results of these tests to judge these kids; they are retained or put in remedial programs and not considered for gifted or advanced programs. The result is often that they are ill-prepared for the California high school exit exam.”
In June 1998, California voters approved Proposition 227, which requires all public school instruction be conducted in English. However, as Solórzano points out in “High Stakes Testing: Issues, Implications, and Remedies for English Language Learners,” access to quality resources and instructors is often limited or non-existent in schools with significant numbers of English language learners.
Of the 1.5 million English language learners in California public schools, more than 290,000 are served by the Los Angeles Unified School District. The 2005 Civil Rights Project reports that only 41 percent of the district’s ninth grade Latino students stay in school long enough to reach grade 12.
Instead of denying diplomas to English language learners based on results of a single standardized test, Solórzano suggests a five-point approach, including developing an “OTL Index” that takes into account the conditions in which students are learning. Do they have all the textbooks they need? Is their school safe and appropriately staffed?
He recommends making accommodations for English language learners that level the playing field, including translated test directions, and individual versus group testing. He also advises testing for English fluency before standardized tests in English are administered or developing new tests or reformatting existing tests for English language learners.
“We have to deal with the realities of education attainment. The bottom line is we’re still segregated and we still have ‘the haves’ and the ‘have nots,’ says Solórzano. “We have to make schools islands of hope where students can not only see bright futures for themselves but where they’ll have the tools and preparation to bring their dreams to fruition.”
After teaching for LAUSD, Solórzano taught at East Los Angeles Community College for seven years in the Chicano Studies Department. At Occidental, he teaches education methods, second language acquisition theories and practices and conflict in education courses. He has researched and published in the areas of school effects, teacher assessment, bilingual education and state teaching standards. He has served on several state and national committees on adult literacy, program evaluation and teacher assessment.