States, Federal Partner on English Testing

By: - July 31, 2006 12:00 am

Twenty-four states are being invited to work with the U.S. Department of Education to develop acceptable math and reading tests for students with limited English proficiency (LEP).

Eighteen were chosen because a review last month found their testing systems, particularly those for LEP students, did not meet standards of the No Child Left Behind law. Six states with approved systems were invited to lend their expertise.

“Homework is due…on implementing various provisions, including assessment systems,” Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said, unveiling the program during a conference call with reporters on July 27.

Last month the Education Department revealed that, because of inadequate testing methods, several states might lose part of their Title I administrative funds, which then would go straight to their districts. The 18 states invited to the program were chosen because problems were found with the LEP portion of their systems.

However, Spellings said, states that participate in the pilot program could regain control of the lost money.

The news was welcomed by some state education leaders. “We have sought technical assistance, plus a clear path and timelines, from the feds in this area, so I am appreciative that they are responding to this call to work as partners with us,” Illinois State School Superintendent Randy Dunn said in an e-mail.

No Child Left Behind, the federal education law that passed with widespread bipartisan support in 2002, seeks to bring every child to grade level in reading and math by 2014. States must put acceptable testing systems into place to measure annual progress for all students, including English-language learners.

Other benefits from the new program include technical help coming up with a plan, access to experts, and exchanging ideas with other states, said Ray Simon, the deputy education secretary. He expects a “smorgasbord” of testing methods for states to consider and choose from in time for the next round of testing in the spring.

“It’s technical assistance that the states have been begging for,” Simon said. “States have done a lot of work. They just haven’t gotten as far as they want to get. We just want to take them the rest of the way.”

Of the states invited to participate, 14 were told last month they could lose control of some administrative funds, and seven – Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota and Texas – were informed the department intended to give a portion of their fiscal 2006 money directly to their school districts, unless persuaded otherwise. Texas would lose almost $1.2 million, Illinois $540,228.

But some of the fines would be “taken off the table, and left off the table as long as the state is a willing participant” in the program, Simon said.

Betty VanDeventer, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Education, said the state has not been informed of the program, “but if it is true, we will be delighted to participate.” Nebraska stands to lose $126,741 to its districts.

Minnesota could lose control of $109,437, but officials from the state’s Department of Education said that wasn’t why they were excited about the program.

“It isn’t so much the money that’s the enticement as much as sharing the knowledge that we have with others,” said Dirk Mattson, acting director of research and assessment. “We’ll certainly be looking to have some other folks share the wealth of their knowledge, as well.”

Minnesota is eager to share its work in developing an alternate version of its math assessment test for English language learners, called the MTELL (Mathematics Test for English Language Learners). The regular math test uses word problems to place the math in real-world situations, and the MTELL will customize it for LEP students. The state will try out the test this fall, and plans to use it in the spring.

The program will look into four types of testing systems for LEP students: tests completely in languages other than English; tests in English but with accommodations, such as being allowed to consult a foreign language dictionary; tests using simplified English; and testing systems that use the English proficiency test as the reading test.

Six states with approved systems were invited to share their programs: Tennessee, Indiana, California, Florida, North Carolina and Ohio.

Other states invited to participate were Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin, as well as Puerto Rico. Eventually, any state will be permitted to join.

The Education Department is inviting states to a meeting in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 28-29 to kick off the program.

The National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights and advocacy organization, was one of several groups urging such a partnership. The group was troubled when some states begin asking to exclude test results of their LEP students in measuring annual progress under No Child Left Behind, said Raul Gonzalez, the group’s legislative director.

“We were concerned that if they could get these waivers they wouldn’t develop better assessments, curriculum and instructional strategies” for English language learners, Gonzalez said. “This is kind of meeting the states in the middle.”

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