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Test Scores and Exiting Programs in Waukegan, Ill.

In Waukegan, Ill., educators have created criteria for when English-language learners should move to mainstream classes that are linked to how well such students score on the state's English-language-proficiency test. The Waukegan school board approved a new policy this month that says students who score 4.5 out of 6 possible levels on the state's English-language proficiency test—called ACCESS for ELLs—should be moved to regular classes.

I draw attention to this because many school districts and states are trying to figure out how to draw similar linkages, now that all states have comprehensive tests that measure students' reading, writing, listening, and speaking in English. Such tests were required for the first time under the No Child Left Behind Act.

But at the same time, I recall remarks that Jamal Abedi, an expert on testing and ELLs at the University of California, Davis, made in January when I interviewed him about the new generation of tests. "We see systematic improvement," he said, "But we don't know how they actually translate into performance of English-language learners."

In other words, he was saying, don't read too much into them yet.

Marilyn Krajenta, the director for programs for English-language learners in the Waukegan district, said to me over the telephone last week that some ELLs have stayed in special programs for up to eight years in her district. Sometimes students who scored a 6 on ACCESS stayed in special programs. "We needed to fix that," she said. A quarter of the district's 16,000 students are ELLs.

A committee of educators recommended the cutoff score of 4.5. "Around the area of 4 to 5 is where students have a good amount of English skill and academic English language, where they are considered to be able to benefit from an all-English program," Ms.Krajenta said. The new policy also stipulates that children who score less than 3 on ACCESS will be placed in classes where 80 percent of instruction is in Spanish and 20 percent is in English. Those who score from 3 to 4.5 are placed in transitional programs where English is the language of instruction but is modified for ELLs.

I don't question that it's a good idea for the Waukegan district to get some criteria down on paper that can be used for its ELLs in 20 schools regarding placement in and exiting of programs. But school districts also need to remember Mr. Abedi's caution that little research has been done at this point regarding what the scores on English-language-proficiency tests mean.

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