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A Look at ELL Performance So Far on Common-Core-Aligned Tests

Student performance on New York's new common-core-aligned tests was weak across the board, as results released earlier this week confirmed the low expectations that education officials in that state had been steeling the public for over the last several months.

Statewide, the proficiency rates in English/language arts sank from 55.1 percent on the non-common-core-aligned exams from the 2011-12 school year, to 31.1 percent on the common-core-aligned tests given this past spring. In math, the proficiency rates fell from 64.8 percent to 31 percent.

For New York's English-language learners, only 3.2 percent were proficient in ELA, while 9.8 percent were so in math. Last year, when the state tests were different, and supposedly easier, 11.7 percent of ELLs in grades 3-8 reached proficiency or higher in ELA, while 34.4 percent were proficient in math. New York has more than 315,000 ELLs in its public schools.

Because of their lack of fluency, of course, English-learners' proficiency rates are always considerably lower than their peers who are native speakers of the language. But do the very low ELL scores on the new common-core-aligned tests provide any early-stage insight into how well teachers, who must change their practice considerably to teach the common standards, are being additionally prepared to support their non-English-proficient students?

We know that the language demands in the Common Core State Standards are far more sophisticated than what has been called for by most states' content standards. English-learners, regardless of their proficiency levels, are expected, for example, to be able to engage with grade-level, complex texts and draw on evidence to make an argument. But to be able to do those things, ELLs are going to need an array of robust supports from their content teachers, as well as their ESL teachers, and most schools and teachers are probably only at the beginning stages of figuring out what they need to do to help ELLs meet the much-higher demands.

In contrast to New York, where scores plummeted for everyone, results on common-core-aligned tests in the District of Columbia schools rose in 2013 and were a major cause for celebration. But English-learners were the one group of students to lose some ground.

Their reading scores slipped slightly between 2012 and 2013 from 37.9 percent proficient to 36.9 percent. In math, they gained a bit from 47.4 percent to 48.3 percent. That slippage in reading, said Kaya Henderson, District of Columbia schools chancellor, will be cause for some intense focus and investment in professional development around how to help ELLs regain their ground in ELA. English-learners make up 10 percent of the district's enrollment.

Kentucky, in 2012, became the first state to change its tests to align with the common standards, and scores also dropped dramatically there. Finding the results for ELLs in Kentucky—their numbers are pretty small in that state—isn't easy. (I spent more than an hour rooting around the state education department's website and couldn't find any disaggregated ELL results.)

For accountability purposes, English-learners' performance is lumped into Kentucky's so-called "gap" group, which includes ELLs, along with African-Americans, Hispanics, American Indians or Alaska Natives, students with disabilities, and students who qualify for free- and reduced-price meals. Kentucky is one of the states that have created a super-subgroup under the terms of its federal waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act.

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