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New York to Seek Federal Waiver to Test English-Learners in Native Languages

UPDATED: After a spokeswoman for the Education Department explained that New York won't actually need a waiver for providing native language arts assessments to eligible ELLs, Tom Dunn, the state agency spokesman, told me that he shouldn't have used the word "waiver." But he explained that the feds will still likely need to approve New York's move to use such tests so that the state lives up to rules for participation and accountability purposes, and so that they can be sure the tests are valid and reliable.

New York state is a hotbed of debate and controversy over common-core standards and testing these days, and sharp disagreements are raging on among educators, parents, and policymakers over the state's rollout of the new learning standards and the assessments being designed to measure student performance.

Responding in part to concerns over assessment, New York education officials are preparing to ask the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver that would allow the state's eligible English-learners to take a language arts assessment in their native language rather than in English.

At least to start, New York officials say they would develop a language arts test in Spanish, as two-thirds of the state's English-learner population is Spanish-speaking. The state would offer the native language assessment option to ELLs who have attended schools in the United States for fewer than five years.

New York already offers a number of its academic content tests in languages other than English. But allowing ELLs to take a language arts exam in their native language in lieu of an English-language version would be breaking new ground. New York is part of the state-testing group known as PARCC, which is developing new math and English/language arts tests aligned to the common standards. PARCC will translate its math exams into Spanish, which New York has said it will use.

Under the current version of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, English-learners who have been enrolled in U.S. schools for 12 months or more must take state content exams, regardless of their English-proficiency levels.

According to Tom Dunn, a spokesman for New York's education agency, state officials want to invest in developing native language arts assessments that they believe would more fairly and equitably allow English-language learners with fewer than five years in U.S. schools to demonstrate their skills and knowledge. The agency has said the new exams are a priority and is requesting $9.5 million in the forthcoming state budget to create them.

Of course, if students haven't had meaningful or regular instruction in language arts in their native language, a test in that language would fall short of accurately measuring their abilities.

New York has more than 315,000 ELLs in its public schools. The state education department estimated that roughly 65,000 Spanish-speaking ELLs were enrolled in grades 3-8 (all tested grades) and an additional 39,000 were in grades 9-12, and it figures that many of those students would meet the state's criteria of having been in U.S. schools for fewer than five years in order to be able to take a native language arts exam.

When New York released results on its common-core-aligned state tests earlier this year, student performance in both math and English/language arts took a steep plunge from 2012 exams, when the tests were not aligned to common core. For ELLs, the results were in the single digits. Only 3.2 percent were proficient in ELA, while 9.8 percent were so in math. The previous year, when the state tests were different, the results were somewhat better, but still quite low.

I've put out queries to see if other states also might be considering a similar waiver request on ELA tests for English-learners, and also whether this is something Education Department folks will consider. 

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