Hours of frustration and anxiety caused by the alarming amount of high-stakes testing in the United States might be reduced due to the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The ESSA is a revision to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), which was itself a revision to the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act (ESEA) that was first passed in the 1960s.
Negative Impact of Only Testing
In their 2008 article, “Testing the Joy out of Learning,” Nichols and Berliner described how teachers were “pledg[ing] allegiance to the test,” a play on words about the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance to the flag that school children recite every morning. They remarked, and many educators agreed, that so many standardized tests
- put too narrow constraints on what teachers can teach,
- are demoralizing to teachers when their students don’t pass the test,
- bore and frustrate students, and
- undermine the teacher-student relationship (p. 14).
For ELs in U.S. schools, using only high-stakes tests means marginalization, as they position students as test score raisers or lower-ers, rather than individuals with potential growth over time (Nichols & Berliner, 2008). This continues to incite cycles of blaming the victim, where teachers, students, and/or districts might blame their students who are most in need of quality eduction and support for their perceived lack of achievement (Cummins, Baker, & Hornberger, 2001).
Potential ESSA Remedies
The TESOL International Association recently released its own statement on the ESSA, noting the following high points of the legislation:
- Using multiple measures instead of only standardized tests to track improvement
- Increased state accountability for ELLs
- Continued commitment of federal funding for ELLs
- Required reporting not only for newer ELLs, but long-term ELLs as well
- Required reporting for ELLs with special needs
- Exclusion from testing for newcomers for a short time
- Inclusion in reporting for ELLs 4 years after they are exited from ESL services
While the above are positive points for ELLs, it’s what’s missing from ESSA that is the most relevant for L2 teacher educators. The TESOL statement notes that the ESSA has some new provisions for teacher professional development, but it is limited, leaving out specific resources or conditions for how to expand the knowledge base of current or preservice teachers who work with ELLs. Also lacking are any proposals to create more bilingual or ESL specialists. This speaks to the notion that working with ELLs requires “just good teaching” (Harper & De Jong, 2004), rather than acknowledging that effectively teaching ELLs requires a sophisticated awareness of language and pedagogical practices.
Another key issue is the fact that there is still no federal support for the research-backed benefits of bilingual education for both learners of English and L1 speakers of English who want to learn another language. In this blogger’s opinion, it is highly unfortunate that these two items do not receive more attention on a national level.
While reducing the high-stakes testing culture is a major step, some of the ESSA feels more like a finger-in-the-dike type of solution. In a country where 10% of the school-age population is classified as an ELL (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015) and 85,000 refugees relocate annually (American Immigration Council, 2015), the real paradigm shift needs to occur in how and when we educate our teachers about language and how people best learn it. If schools of education and school districts continue to position ESL programs and ESL certification as an add-on or an extra to “mainstream” education, they will continue to marginalize ELLs themselves. An example of this is here in Texas, a U.S. state with one of the highest ELL populations. You would expect extra coursework about language learners and professional development be required of Texas teachers, but there is none. In fact, all teachers have to do is simply (ironically) pass a test to be considered qualified to work with ELLs.
To read more about education in general, check out the 2010 book by former assistant secretary of education, Diane Ravitch: The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. If you’re from a country other than the United States, how does educational policy impact you and your students? How does it impact you here in the United States?
American Immigration Council. (2015). An overview of U.S. refugee law and policy. Retrieved from http://www.immigrationpolicy.org/just-facts/refugees-fact-sheet
Cummins, J., Baker, C., & Hornberger, N. H. (Eds.). (2001). An introductory reader to the writings of Jim Cummins (Vol. 29). Multilingual Matters.
Harper, C., & Jong, E. (2004). Misconceptions about teaching English‐language learners. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 48(2), 152–162.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2015). English language learners. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cgf.asp
Nichols, S. L., & Berliner, D. C. (2008). Testing the joy out of learning. Educational Leadership, 65(6), 14–18.