Are ELLs Failing the Standardized Tests or Are We Failing ELLs?

Authors: Dr. Liping Wei & Dr. Paul Carlson

High-stakes testing places public schools and teachers under increased pressure. The stress that they place on some English Language Learners (ELLs) is counterproductive. Tests such as the STAAR require mastery of academic language and content knowledge at grade level. This is unrealistic for many ELLs and asks schools and teachers to do the impossible.

Experts in Second Language Acquisition (SLA) have long argued that it takes time to learn a new language. One of the most prominent researchers in SLA, Jim Cummins, claims that it often takes five or more years for ELLs to master enough formal academic English to catch up to their native English-speaking peers. To pass the STAAR, students must have both advanced academic English and grade-level knowledge in the content areas. For some ELLs, this is simply not achievable without greater local flexibility.

The problem is especially clear when we consider the varying ages, grade levels, personal histories, and English proficiency levels of ELLs. Consider the following examples:

  • Refugee students placed in a 3rd grade classroom who do not know how to hold a pencil or open a book;
  • ESL students who have special needs but have not yet been identified and are not receiving essential support services;
  • Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education (SLIFE students) who were not given support in their home countries and have little or no understanding of expected classroom behaviors; and
  • Students who have little or no literacy in their home language.

These are just some examples that illustrate the mismatch between mandated academic standards and the realities of some English Language Learners. The reported test results unfairly reflect on the quality of instruction. Even more tragically, they depress the students’ motivation. ELL students often feel beaten down. They start to doubt themselves and believe they are unintelligent. The fact is, with appropriate ESL and sheltered instruction over time, they can meet rigorous academic demands.

ELLs may appear to be one group. But under the label, there is a diverse student population. And there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. We need to meet all students at their levels of academic and English language proficiency levels. Failure to do so not only hurts the students and the morale of school professionals. It reduces society’s available talent. We can meet federal and state policies, mandates and academic expectation if local schools are given the freedom to adapt to their specific students.

Dr. Liping Wei is an Associate Professor in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis in ESL Teacher Preparation in the School of Education, Health Professions, and Human Development at the University of Houston-Victoria. She is in charge of M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction with a concentration in ESL/TESOL.

Dr. Paul Carlson is a Professor in the UHV School of Education, Health Professions, and Human Development.

Learn more about the M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction with a concentration in ESL/TESOL.