Rethinking Assessment for English Learners in Florida

Rethinking EL Assessment in Florida

In Florida, a group of high-school students recently staged a protest to oppose a state law dictating that all students must pass a 10th-grade English language exam to graduate from high school. 

Students from Armwood High School in Hillsborough County were spurred into action after participating in a hands-on civics class that guided them through the process of researching an issue and drafting a bill for lawmakers’ perusal. According to news reports, they chose Florida’s English language exit exam on behalf of their English Learner (EL, or ELL) classmates who, they contend, are still prepared to graduate from high school despite not yet developing English language proficiency. 

In an interview with a local media outlet, Armwood High senior Maria Medina spoke of a classmate who recently emigrated from Cuba, had her high-school credits accepted, and was doing quite well in an advanced math class. However, according to Medina, this seemingly capable student may be prevented from graduating and heading off to college due to an academic language barrier. Examples like this prompted Medina and her fellow civics students to think critically about how their peers are being assessed—and, ultimately, to propose that EL students be exempted from Florida’s English language exam. Let's take a look at some of the central issues at play:

Academic vs. conversational language skills

While EL high-schoolers may have adequate skills in terms of carrying on a conversation in English, mastering academic English—the stuff of high-stakes tests—is another matter altogether. As a Tampa Bay Times report on the Armwood High students’ advocacy noted, “Studies show it takes at least five years to gain academic, as opposed to conversational, language skills.”

Indeed, according to EL teacher Judie Haynes, there is a clear difference between Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (known as BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (or CALP). In her book, titled Getting Started with English Language Learners, Haynes delved more deeply into the complexity of language acquisition before ultimately reiterating the point touched upon by the Times: Although a student may be able to convey their thoughts in casual English conversation, becoming proficient in academic English typically takes much longer. 

In light of this, Florida's test may be assessing the wrong thing—namely, English fluency rather than content knowledge.

Standardization vs. differentiation

While content knowledge and language proficiency are important components of any strong education system, requiring students to pass a one-size-fits-all English exam may do more harm than good. As Colorín Colorado contributor Karen Ford contended in a post on the EL resource site, “Standardized tests in English do not usually reflect ELLs' true content knowledge or abilities,” and ELs would be better served by instructional and assessment practices that suit their unique status. Of course, implementing such differentiation in the classroom requires teachers and students to adopt both a growth mindset and an adaptable, extensive array of instructional strategies.

Needless to say, this is easier said than done. As a first step, Ford encouraged teachers to ask themselves the following question, as posited by noted researchers Carol Ann Tomlinson and Marcia B. Imbeau: "What does this student need at this moment in order to be able to progress with this key content, and what do I need to do to make that happen?" 

According to Ford, EL students' need access to challenging content, along with the ability to be assessed in a manner that effectively gauges their progress, leaves room for differentiation, and considers each individual's “English language proficiency, as well as the many other factors that can impact learning.”

Assets vs. deficits

Backed by Florida state legislator Susan Valdes, the Armwood High School students seem to have tapped into increasing momentum around the need to adjust Florida law and start testing students in their native language. Indeed, some advocates for change are characterizing their cause as both a civil rights issue and a measure allowed under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, and the fact that the movement has picked up steam to such a degree is evidence of a growing push to recognize EL students' assets—not just their deficits. 

In 2016, Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein of the nonprofit McRel International organization made this point:

Unrealistic expectations and ambivalence toward students' native languages may reflect what some say is deeply ingrained ‘deficit thinking’ about ELLs—a belief that students (or their families) are at fault for their low performance, which prevents educators from examining their own practices or the system as part of the problem.

Yet the propensity to regard ELs with a deficit mindset isn't limited to educators. After all, it was state policy makers who created Florida's current system of testing all high-schoolers in English only.

In Florida as well as in other areas of the country, many EL students have developed grade-level content knowledge that qualifies them to graduate alongside their peers despite lacking fluency in academic English—which suggests that, as far as existing assessments go, one size does not fit all.

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