This is the time of year when school really begins to get stressful if you teach a testing grade. Walk into an upper elementary classroom between now and April and you can feel the pressure in the air. As an English as a second language teacher in New York City this is also the time of year when I get bombarded with questions about what testing modifications the ESL students get during the test. However, I mostly get questions about who is exempt.
Exemption is where it begins to get complicated. According to No Child Left Behind(NCLB), ESL students are allowed exemption for one year. One year. That’s it. Here’s the complicated part, because ESL students tend to be a fairly transient population, the time period of one year is clarified. In my experience, I often have students that disappear back to their native country with no warning and then return weeks or months later with no explanation. This doesn’t happen with every student, but it is a reality for those of us with ESL students in our classes. I have one student that is never in school for the months of December and January. Needless to say, it hurts his academics. If you have a student that enrolls in a school in New York in January in third grade, he or she then completes the year having taken the New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test (NYSESLAT) and the New York State Math Exam. This student is exempt from the English Language Arts (ELA) Exam. When the classroom teacher hears this, she usually breathes a huge sigh of relief. The student then goes onto fourth grade having spent the summer in his native country and forgotten what English he knows. He then spends all of the winter months back in his home country returning just in time for spring break and test prep. He is no longer exempt from the ELA exam and has to sit the exam staring blankly at the page in frustration. No matter how many times he dis-enrolls and re-enrolls in the NYS public school, he is no longer exempt. His level of English proficiency is never taken into account.
Here is where my frustration as an ESL teacher begins to set in. NCLB refuses to take into account English proficiency and statistics on language acquisition. It takes 5-6 years for anyone to become academically proficient in any second language even if the student in question never misses a day of school. If the research and data says it takes that long, why are we putting students that are not yet capable, in a frustrating situation that sets them up for failure? As educators we need to start wondering how we can prevent this from continuing.
As far as testing modifications go, ESL students are allowed a few. They get time and a half and directions read three times. The biggest aids that I see are allowed only for content area tests, not the English language arts exam. For these exams, the students are allowed a bilingual dictionary. The dictionary must be a straight translation, no definitions allowed. I recommend buying these dictionaries in advance and practice using them before the day of the test. They are also allowed to take the exam in their home language. If the test is not available in that particular home language, the district is required to provide a translator who reads the test to the student. I have mixed feelings about this when it comes to students that have been in the monolingual English class for some time. They are getting the class in English and then taking the test in another language. This can be difficult if the student has never learned the content vocabulary in the home language. I ask the students specifically what language they feel most comfortable taking the exam in and then go from there.
I hope this is of help to all the teachers of ELLs and good luck during testing season! And all the best to your English language learners!