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Testing English-Language Learners in U.S. Schools: Report and Workshop Summary
While most participants clearly agreed that the goals can seem to conflict, and that there is no one obvious solution, others pointed out that “the perfect must not be the enemy of the good.” As a number of workshop discussions demonstrated, a substantial amount of sound research and practice have already yielded important insights, not only about pitfalls but about the details of how students learn a second language, and about the factors that can make schooling and testing these youngsters more or less successful. Moreover, as one participant noted, Massachusetts, the first state to mandate that every bilingual student's progress in learning English be assessed every year, did so in 1971. The goal for this mandate was to ensure that the students were being adequately taught, but the state has not found an appropriate testing instrument for this purpose and has delegated this responsibility to the districts. The state's long wait for a perfect instrument, he argued, may not have been necessary since a variety of tools are available to help administrators track students' performance.
RESULTS FROM THE WORKSHOP
The workshop provided committee members with a clear picture of English-language learners in U.S. schools and some of the factors that affect both their educational needs and decisions about testing them. These are presented in detail in Part Two of this report and summarized here.
U.S. schools face a significant challenge in educating a growing population of immigrants and others who are not proficient in English. Spanish-background elementary students concentrated in high-poverty schools comprise the majority of these students.
A decades-long set of legal precedents, beginning with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, has led to a clear expectation that English-language learners be provided with the same educational opportunities as other students, and that they be held to the same academic standards as other students.
English-language learners' academic needs are complex and variable. They need to develop not only mastery of conversational English, but also mastery of the academic spoken and written English necessary to do the academic work for which they are ready. Accomplishing the latter takes four to seven years, on average. Moreover, while their English skills are developing they also need to continue to make progress in other subjects and to receive appropriate and challenging instruction that prepares them