New exam brings lower proficiency for English learners

Indiana educators expected English learners to struggle with a new language proficiency assessment given in spring 2017. But they were surprised students struggled as much as they did.

“We knew there would be a higher standard,” said Emily Schwartz Keirns, ELL manager for Fort Wayne Community Schools. “What we didn’t anticipate was that the difference would be as dramatic as it was.”

Dramatic is the word. In 2016, 23 percent of the Fort Wayne district’s ELL students scored proficient on the previous version of the exam, which is called WIDA ACCESS. In 2017, the number fell to 1.7 percent.

That mirrored statewide results: 26.2 percent of Indiana’s ELL students were proficient in 2016, but only 2.3 percent were proficient this year.

Students must score proficient on the test – 5 or higher on a 6-point scale – to transition out of services aimed at helping improve their English skills. Lower passing rates mean more students will be retained in English learner classes, causing potential budget and staffing challenges in Indiana and across the U.S.

This chart, from the Indiana Department of Education, shows the scoring breakdown for Indiana ELL students in spring 2017:

WIDA is the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment consortium, a group of 39 states that share English learning resources. Indiana joined the consortium five years ago.

Nathan Williamson, director of Title grants and support for the Indiana Department of Education, said WIDA made its standards and assessment more rigorous to align with the Common Core State Standards and other “college and career ready” standards that states have been adopting.

Indiana students struggled some when the state adopted new standards and a more rigorous ISTEP exam in 2014-15. Students who passed both math and English ISTEP fell by 20 percentage points.

“Essentially, ACCESS had to follow that same process,” Williamson said. “The standards of ACCESS needed to align with the more rigorous standards of state content standards. You want to see an English-learning student achieve proficiency. When they do, they can be successful in the classroom and on the state exams like ISTEP and ILEARN,” the exam that will replace ISTEP in Indiana.

Keirns, the Fort Wayne official, said ELL educators welcomed higher standards. They worried students were scoring proficient on the easier test given until 2016, losing access to ELL services and then falling behind in their regular classes.

“The previous two years, we had such a high number reach proficiency that we really felt it was kind of a false high,” she said. “Some students were reaching proficiency on the test before they were ready.”

Fort Wayne Community Schools have about 2,300 students who are English learners. They speak 70 languages. Across Indiana, about 50,000 students – 5 percent of public school enrollment – are classified as English learners. The number grew rapidly until a decade ago: Between 1995 and 2005, ELL students in Indiana increased by over 400 percent, the second-highest rate in the nation.

In recent years, the number of Indiana ELL students has been stable. But if proficiency rates remain low and fewer students transition out of language services, it could rise again, forcing some districts to hire more ELL teachers and provide more services.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal education law, requires school accountability systems to include measures for the success of English learners. Indiana’s school grading system will use ACCESS scores to indicate whether ELL students are making appropriate progress toward English proficiency.

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