Tracking, Retention, and High School Graduation

No systematic information is available about whether or how English-language learners are accommodated in tests used for tracking or retention. In addition, we know very little about current assessment practices used to place English-language learners in Title I targeted assistance programs or other remedial programs, gifted and talented classes or advanced academic course work, or special education programs; there is an urgent need for research on these important questions.

A survey conducted in 1993–1994 (Rivera and Vincent, 1997) found that 17 states require students to pass one or more content-area tests to receive a standard high school diploma. States approach the testing of English-language learners in various ways (see Box 9-2). Eight states exempt them from the first administration of the test for a set period of time. For example, if the state first gives a graduation test in 10th grade, a newly arrived student who is judged to have insufficient English proficiency may be temporarily excused from taking the test. According to the survey, such deferrals are usually for six months to a year.

Eleven states permit accommodations, the most frequent being extra time, small-group administration, clarifying directions, flexible scheduling, and the use of dictionaries. Only two states, New York and New Mexico, give the test in students' native languages. Four states permit or require alternative assessments.

A major task in deciding how to assess English-language learners for purposes of high school graduation is to determine what level of English proficiency (if any) should be prerequisite to receiving a diploma. This decision will dictate whether graduation requirements in some domains can or should be assessed in the student's native language.

Deciding whether English proficiency should be a requirement for graduation—and, if so, what type and what level of English proficiency—could be considered a moral and policy decision about how society defines "basically educated." A more pragmatic view might see it as an economic decision about basic workplace requirements and improving students' employability. In other words, it is not essentially a psychometric decision. But it has enormous consequences for other psychometric activity, because any state or district that requires little or no English, or only conversational English, thus commits itself to developing bilingual and/or other language versions of all content tests. In most states, all children who do not graduate on time, including English-language learners

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