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Grim NAEP Science Results for English Learners

Eighth grade English learners significantly trail their native English-speaking peers in science achievement and gained no ground at all in the last two years, according to results from the Nation's Report Card that were released today.

Findings from earth, life, and physical sciences on the 2011 administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, show that English learners made no improvement from two years ago when the exam was last given. Their average score was 106 on a 300-point scale and falls 21 points short of a scale score of 127, which is the bottom of the "below basic" category. In 2009, the average score for ELLs was 103, compared to 151 for non-ELLs. The average score for students with disabilities in 2011 was somewhat better than that for ELLs at 124, but also falls below the lowest possible score to even be considered "below basic."

The types of questions students needed to answer correctly to reach the "below basic" level included identifying an example of kinetic energy or recognizing how plants use sunlight.

Overall, 8th graders improved their performance in 2011 over 2009. The average score rose from 150 to 152, a statistically significant increase, but still below a score that demonstrates proficiency. The exam was given to a nationally representative sample of 122,000 8th graders from more than 7,200 schools.

What do we make of this performance for English learners? How many were excluded from even taking the science NAEP? What percentage of those who did take it are recently-arrived immigrants versus those who would be considered long-term ELLs who have been in U.S. schools for six years or longer and still haven't acquired English? How many of these students have even had access to rigorous, grade-level science content? And how many of them have been well supported in developing their "academic language" in science?

Overall, 17 percent of NAEP science test takers were identified as ELLs or students with disabilities and 15 percent of them took the test, according to the report. NAEP, in a bid to include more students in its testing sample, allows for most of the same testing accommodations that are permitted when taking state or district tests. For the science exam, the most commonly used accommodation was extra time and taking the test in a small-group format.

Of course, there are problems with looking for meaning in these results for ELLs because within the subgroup, there is a big range of language skills, ranging from beginner to advanced, and the makeup of the group is constantly changing. Once students reach proficiency, they are reclassified as such and are no longer designated as ELL, which is a key reason why educators and language experts have been pushing for policymakers to require that the data for reclassified ELL students be reported over several years. And of course, there is the whole question of validity and whether these students should even be tested for mastery of a content area in a language that they haven't yet acquired.

There are a number of research efforts underway to study and improve science instruction for English-learners, several of them supported with grants from the National Science Foundation. The best known is the project in Florida overseen by NYU professor Okhee Lee, who has developed a curriculum and professional development for teachers.

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