How Testing Culture Can Discourage English Language Learners

I recently had an experience that made me question what my role is as an English Language teacher, and how state-mandated testing can hurt future ESL students. I was never a huge proponent of standardized testing to begin with, but have always tried to look at it as yet another tool to determine student mastery…not the end game, just diagnostic. This viewpoint would have sustained me in the coming years, but after experiencing what I did, I am having a difficult time justifying this part of my work.

Around the end of the first semester, just before winter break, I was alerted that a new student had arrived at our school from Columbia. His first and only language is Spanish, and a regional dialect that made it even more challenging to communicate with him. Fortunately, he was bright and quick, and very willing to learn. Before even testing him, I set up meetings with him to instruct him in “Survival English”, through a newcomer curriculum component I’d used with past non-English speakers. It introduces them to greetings, numbers, location words, and questioning phrases. It uses visual information and recordings of short conversations, which I then practice with the student.

During this time, he came along with a classmate I see, also a Spanish-speaker, but who is more proficient in English. He was born here in the US, but both parents speak mainly Spanish at home. He could communicate with the new student, but the regional differences in their Spanish conversations made it difficult for them to partner for everything. So I would assign independent work for the proficient student for brief periods while I concentrated on the new student’s needs, front-loading vocabulary.

I came to realize how bright this new student was, and that he was actually very proficient at reading and writing in Spanish, something that is rare among Spanish-speakers in our region. It was apparent that he was well-educated in Columbia. He is a diligent student, and is eager to learn, and show his knowledge. He knows many English words in isolation, but cannot yet string them together in sentences, so has difficulty understanding English grammar. I knew he was going to need a lot of encouragement and patience, and visual support. I found myself using my own remedial Spanish-speaking skills, learning more Spanish as I taught him basic English concepts. I was building a relationship of trust and academic inquiry with him. I spent time showing him similarities between the two languages, comparing words with common roots.

Then came the day that I had to give him a state-mandated “placement test”. We practiced the speaking portion, and he watched a DVD presentation showing how this is done. None of the directions or explanations could be provided to him in his native language, because it is an English Language proficiency assessment. I could see how the idea of taking this test was stressing him out. I tried to explain in my broken Spanish that it was only a diagnostic assessment , and that he should try to do his best. Still, he seemed uneasy. We were facing up to three days of testing, sometimes for up to 2 hours a sitting.

So I sought out the assistance of a colleague who speaks Spanish. I had her explain the purpose of the test, the fact that I could not explain any part of it in his native language, and that he should just try his best. I also asked that she explain that the test was not graded, so he needn’t worry about “failing”. Following this exchange, he seemed a lot more at ease.

He got  through the first portion of testing okay, but as he made his way through the reading and writing portions, I could see a change in his attitude. He became very disconsolate, would stop frequently and just put his head down. At one point, he was crying, but tried not to show me. I gave him short breaks, and sent him back to his class after one part to give him a long break, and time to regroup. He got his lunch and some recess time. But I knew the end of the testing day was coming, so I had to pick him up to finish the test. The district sends a representative to pick up the test, which is handled like plutonium. Worried that they would come for the test before he could finish, I had e-mailed and called them during lunch to let them know the difficulties the student was having… and was informed that the student could opt to skip questions if they weren’t able to answer. This was something not explained to teachers/proctors during training. The whole point is to gauge their real proficiency…so how would skipping questions, giving no response, give accurate results? And yet, was it right to encourage the student to answer, when they clearly could not?

I will shorten this account to conclude that, although the student finished the test before the end of the day, he was effected negatively by it. He was less willing to come see me for practice. He was more nervous about assessments, and impatient with himself. I let him know in every possible way that I think he is a fine student, and that learning English will come easier with time and practice, and not to be too hard on himself. I admit, I was emotionally invested in this student throughout the process, and perhaps he picked up on it. But as an advocate for my students, I did not feel I could stand by and have him take a test without understanding it’s purpose and implications.

Even as we try to de-mystify and justify the testing culture in this country, students from countries and cultures not familiar with this emphasis on standardized testing, even as a diagnostic process, are bound to feel somewhat at a disadvantage, and may become discouraged. It took about 2 weeks for me to gain this student’s trust and interest in learning English. The test wasn’t available right away, so I had time to get to know and work with him beforehand. Now I wonder if I should have waited, and not seen him before I tested him. My 2 weeks with him, building his trust, was undone in as little as two days of testing. And now he faces more standardized state testing in the Spring. Regardless of his status as an ELL, he will have to take this test as well. Currently, I have one quarter of a school year to prepare him for this.

He told me after taking the proficiency test, that in his country, he is a good student. They don’t take so many tests.

How sad that a student’s confidence can be reduced by even one test in an unfamiliar language. Part of my job as an ELD teacher is to administer and proctor this, and other standardized testing, as we are short-staffed at our school. English Language learners’ needs take a backseat to the mainstream population, and though that seems unfair, it is due to budgetary cuts that don’t allow us to hire more qualified teacher aides, bilingual or otherwise. So I’m “it” at my school. Sometimes I feel like an inquisitor, even though, at heart, I am a dedicated instructor. Testing is not going away…in terms of accountability, I know it is necessary. But the culture and attitudes about its importance, as well as its punitive nature, need to be rethought and redrafted, to be fair and truly a tool for student diagnoses and success.

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