English-Language Learners

Federal and state mandates increasingly require the inclusion of English-language learners in large-scale assessments of achievement (Goals 2000 [P.L. 103–227], Title I [Helping Disadvantaged Children Meet High Standards] and Title VII [Bilingual Education] of the Improving America's Schools Act of 1994 [P.L. 103–382]). In particular, high-stakes tests are used with English-language learners for decisions related to tracking, promotion, and graduation, as well as for system-wide accountability. The demands that full participation of English-language learners make on assessment systems are greater than current knowledge and technology can support. In addition, there are fewer procedural safeguards for English-language learners under federal law than for students with disabilities.

When English-language learners are not proficient in the language of the assessment, their scores will not accurately reflect their knowledge. Thus, requiring those who are not proficient in English to take an English-language version of a test without accommodations will produce invalid information about their true achievement (American Educational Research Association et al., 1985; National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 1997). This can lead to poor decisions about individuals and about English-language learners as a group, as well as about school systems in which they are heavily represented.

Understanding the performance of English-language learners on achievement assessments requires satisfactory assessments of English-language proficiency, in order to determine whether poor performance is attributable to lack of knowledge of the test content or weak skills in English. Lack of a clear or consistent definition of language proficiency, and of indicators or measures of it, contributes to the difficulty of making these decisions more systematically (Olson and Goldstein, 1997).

Research evidence to date does not allow us to be certain about the meaning of test scores for students who are not yet proficient in English and who have received accommodations or modifications in test procedures. For any examination system employing accommodations or modifications, test developers or test users should conduct research to determine whether the constructs measured are the same for all children (Hambleton and Kanjee, 1994; Olson and Goldstein, 1997).

Accommodations and alternative tests should be provided (1) to increase the participation of English-language learners in large-scale assessments and (2) to increase the validity of test results. These two

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