Decline in participation of annual English fluency test prompts need for more analysis

A young student wearing headphones and working on a laptop. The foreground is a close up of the child’s head with the laptop in the background.
This year’s participation in the ACCESS test for English language learners was down to 77.6%. (Geoff Decker / Chalkbeat)

More than three-quarters of Colorado’s students learning English as a second language took their annual state tests on English fluency this spring.

That’s after a campaign from advocates first sought to cancel the tests, and after failing, turned to teaching parents that it was their right to keep children from taking the test, if they felt unsafe going to school buildings.

The participation rate is lower than usual, which is prompting state education officials to further analyze results to see how useful they may prove in giving educators a big-picture look at how English language learners statewide have fared during the pandemic and whether they progressed in English proficiency.

The tests are usually used to help place students in appropriate English development classes, or to determine when they’ve learned enough English to stop requiring additional support. Given the unusual circumstances, state officials said individual results might also need to be interpreted cautiously in certain cases, but that they are useful for parents and teachers.

But advocates say the results are questionable, which is the reason the tests shouldn’t have been done this year, and that instead teachers are relying on other evidence about how students are learning English. 

“It’s going to be important for us to be able to describe the group who tested,” said Joyce Zurkowski, chief assessment officer for the Colorado Department of Education. “We will be able to tell the public things about these students and how they did, but we’re going to have to provide that bigger context.”

It’s possible, for example, that the students who did test may not accurately represent all English learners in Colorado. The state will need to look carefully at the students who were tested, including by region, by race, by their previous English proficiency, and whether they qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty.

That analysis isn’t typically needed in other years when the vast majority of English learners take the tests. The review would take at least until August.

During the pandemic, many experts have said that English learner students, often in immigrant families, were having a more difficult time with remote learning. Some schools at the beginning of closures didn’t offer English development classes or provided shortened sessions. 

English learners also faced more challenges in connecting to the internet and understanding instruction via a computer. The pandemic pounded many families of color, and in Colorado, disproportionately Hispanic families. They were more likely than the general population to get COVID-19, or to be harder hit financially.

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The English fluency test, called ACCESS, consists of four parts: to measure different parts of language: speaking into a microphone, reading, writing, and listening on a headset, and has to be done in person.

State officials say of the 89,487 English learners identified in the state, 69,442 students took the tests, or about 77.6%. 

Jorge Garcia, the executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education, one of the advocates who had pushed to cancel the ACCESS tests this year, said that participation is about what he expected.

Once Garcia and other advocates informed parents through radio and television commercials that they could opt their children out if they didn’t feel safe sending them to buildings to take the test, they heard from parents who said their school leaders told them that taking the test wasn’t a choice.

“Why put people through this emotional and physical trauma for tests that will yield results that are questionable at best,” Garcia said. “That was our argument to begin with.”

Individual results, Zurkowski said, can be used as in previous years to help determine the level of proficiency of a student and whether they should be placed in different classes, or no longer receive federally required language services. But, she said, educators should take into account whether the student was testing under unfavorable conditions, for instance, if the student wasn’t feeling well. If so, the results may not be as helpful by themselves.

For students who didn’t take the test, schools use other pieces of evidence to determine a child’s language proficiency to make instructional decisions.

Although state officials say that individual results should help teachers and families understand how their children are learning and progressing, Garcia said that other factors might also make the results difficult to interpret.

Garcia said that students took the test sometimes after receiving little or no instruction. A student that isn’t showing progress could either be having difficulty learning, or simply didn’t have access to instruction.

“What we need to be relying on is the rest of the body of evidence,” he said.

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