The North Carolina State Board of Education earlier this month changed its policy for the standardized tests English language learners are required to take at the end of each school year.
In the past, students who are learning English and have been in U.S. schools for a year or less were exempt from taking the state’s end-of-grade exams in 3rd through 8th grade.
The new policy will require all students take these exams beginning this spring.
“We want that clock to start ticking the minute they walk in the door,” said Tammy Howard, director of accountability services at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.
Howard says this policy will help ease new students into testing and better track their growth.
Before the new policy, first-year English language learners also didn't have to take high school end-of-course exams in English language arts, although they did in math and science classes. Those exams count as 20 percent of a student’s final grade. Now, all students will take all end-of-course exams, but new immigrants learning English won’t have those exams factor into their final grade.
Slower phase-in for federal reporting
The revised policy also phases in the way that students’ scores are used for schoolwide reporting.
“It’s easing them into the accountability system, so that first year, they’re participating, but not for the accountability measures,” Howard said referring to school-wide accountability measures reported for the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.
For students in their second year in a U.S. school, their scores will be included in their school’s score for academic growth, and in their third year, it will be included in the school’s achievement score.
“Previously the only allowance was for the first year,” Howard explained. “And so what this change through ESSA does, is it actually gives us three years to roll these students into where they are fully in the accountability model.”
What does this mean for ESL classrooms?
“The advantage is that schools and teachers and everybody responsible for educating these kids will be responsible for these students right from the very first day that they’re here,” said Carlos Oliveira of Alamance-Burlington schools.
Oliveira is the director of services for English language learners in his school district. About a quarter of students in that school system speak a language other than English at home, and about 10 percent receive specialized services to improve their English proficiency. Oliveira has seen testing policy for language learners fluctuate over his more than 15 years combined as an English as a Second Language instructor and now director.
Oliveira says the advantages to testing first year students learning English may be shorter than the list of reasons for leaving them exempt.
“There are always concerns with putting students who are learning a second language in front of a high stakes test,” Oliveira said.
He also notes that a first-year immigrant may not have been in their North Carolina school for a full year. Oliveira says an English language learner who starts in August will be relatively familiar with taking standardized tests and may have more exposure to English by spring … but new students arrive year-round.
“You know, the student who arrives in March or April, we’ll get a data point, but in terms of getting any meaningful data for those students after those two or three months, it probably won’t be a whole lot,” Oliveira explains.
As far as understanding the impact the new policy will have on schools’ accountability scores, Oliveira says he’ll just have to wait to see after the first round of tests this spring.