Testimony before the National Assessment Governing Board

Assessing Language Minority Student Achievement: Testimony before the National Assessment Governing Board

Jill Kerper Mora
November 2, 1998  Los Angeles, California

Thank you for the opportunity to testify before this Board regarding the issues of language minority students' participation in a voluntary national testing program. In this testimony I will address three important policy questions raised by the National Academy of Sciences study. These are:

  • What positive role could the federal government play in raising levels of academic achievement for language minority students through a national testing program?
  • In order to contribute to educational opportunities for language minority students, what test results and related statistical and demographic information from a national voluntary testing program would be useful to guide public policy?
  • What measures must be taken to ensure the proper use of information gathered through this program, to both protect the rights to equal educational opportunities of language minority students and to promote the national interests of the United States?

I believe that there is a positive role for a National Report Card on education. California's recent experiences with the Stanford 9 reading scores and passage of Proposition 227 give us indications of the contradictions in the direction of public policy. Basically, the disaggregated SAT-9 scores released this summer by language proficiency indicate that native-English speaking students throughout the state in grades K-8 are performing at or near the national norms. In some areas of the state, students who were originally classified as Limited English Proficient (LEP) and who were re-classified as Fluent English Proficient (FEP) are performing at, or well-above, the national norm. However, students classified as limited English proficient are not faring well in California's schools (Anderson, 1998; California Department of Education, 1998; Colvin & Anderson, 1998; Nguyen, 1998). These data have two important implications for educational reform.

First, the scores of the redesignated Fluent English Proficient students suggest that where systematic efforts have been made to provide linguistically appropriate instruction and monitor students' progress to ensure that they reach proficiency in English and acquire literacy skills, they do as well, or better than, their native-English speaking peers. However, we do not have sufficient information to draw conclusions regarding the types of instructional programs that were in place to account for these results. Since the redesignation criteria for determining fluent English proficiency include oral language assessment, teacher recommendations and standardized test scores, we must conclude that multiple criteria are necessary to provide a true picture of the progress of language minority students.

Second, the results tell us that school reforms and sound educational policies must be targeted at raising achievement levels of language minority students not yet proficient in English and who have not yet developed the level of literacy skills sufficient for them to successfully continue toward graduation. Although the policy implications of the California's standardized test scores are clear to educators, the ballot initiative process has been employed with Proposition 227 to restructure public education, mandating a single mode of educating language-minority students.

According to the July 15 ruling of Judge Charles Legge in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California (Valeria G. v. Wilson, No. C-98-2252-CAL), the mode of instruction called sheltered English immersion is a "sequential" rather than "simultaneous" teaching of English language skills and academic content. While denying a preliminary injunction against implementation of 227, Judge Legge affirmed that the results of the proposed sheltered immersion program must be evaluated according to the criteria set forth in prior court decisions. Specifically, he relied on Castañeda v. Pickard (648 F.2d at 1010) which outlines requirements that academic deficits created by language barriers to learning must actually be overcome through appropriate educational programs. The California State Board of Education has reiterated this obligation in the regulations for implementation of Proposition 227 now in effect. School districts are required to provide remedial programs to recoup any deficits in academic learning that may occur until language minority students are able to achieve at a level comparable to their native-English speaking peers.

What I argue here, is that it is in the national interest for the federal government to provide a means for evaluating whether or not, and through what educational treatments, language minority student are being brought up to comparable levels of academic achievement within a reasonable time frame. It is imperative to accurately assess the impact of educational policies enacted by state and federal legislation on language minority student populations. Assessment data are necessary to fulfill the obligations of the federal government to protect access to equal educational opportunities for minorities under the Constitution. Furthermore, it is my belief that Judge Legge's decision creates an obligation for the federal government to support evaluations of the effectiveness of state-mandated LEP programs and remedial instruction in order to monitor compliance with the Equal Educational Opportunities Act and other relevant federal laws.

The national government must also ensure compliance of the United States with international treaties protecting the linguistic human rights of minority populations. This obligation arises under the provisions and the officially elaborated interpretations of three documents signed by the United States. These are the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (December 1992); the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, General Comments on Article 27 (April 1994) and the Hague Recommendations regarding the Education Rights of National Minorities (October 1996). Specifically, the Hague Recommendations interpret the spirit of international instruments to be that bilingualism is a right and responsibility for persons belonging to national minorities. The document formulated for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Commissioner on National Minorities, reminds nations not to interpret their obligations to linguistic minorities in a restrictive manner. Rather, these treaties recognize the linguistic rights of national minorities and create a positive obligation on states to encourage and promote conditions that enable parents to avail themselves of mother-tongue instruction in the public schools.

According to international scholar Tove Skutnabb-Kangas (2000), who is one of the group of experts on human rights and education that drafted the guidelines, the Hague Recommendations document is clear on one important point. State-mandated education programs for language minorities that are submersion-type approaches, where the curriculum is taught exclusively through the medium of the State language and where minority children are entirely integrated into classes with children of the majority, are not in line with international standards. These treaties advance the cause of world peace by guaranteeing the full social, economic and political participation of language minority groups–a cause that is in our self-interest domestically, as well as in our international best interests in today's competitive global economy and increasingly diverse society. It is not in the best interests of the United States to permit regressive educational policies that seek to socialize language minority groups for subordinate social and economic positions. A state policy of enforced monolingualism should not be adopted as national policy, nor should its constitutionality go unchallenged.

I believe that the National Assessment Governing Board can play a constructive role in developing instrumentation that goes beyond the traditional practice of comparing the academic performance of language minority students with the performance of their native English-speaking peers through norm-referenced testing. Rather, the NAGB could assist in developing testing instruments for determining realistic expectations for growth in language and literacy skills at several grade levels, assuming exposure to effective instructional programs. Meaningful comparisons of educational treatments can be based on these data. For example, comparing results of testing of demographically comparable language minority student populations in California and Texas would prove helpful, since these states now operate under different models of language minority student education. Data could suggest the efficacy of different policies for instructing limited English proficient students.

We need valid and reliable instruments to assess growth in language proficiency and literacy learning that are sensitive to gains that are attributable to programs and modes of instruction. Consequently, testing must be accompanied by rich descriptions of students' characteristics, including language proficiency, years of residency in the United States, and years in a particular school and program. Statistics should, therefore, include detailed descriptions of the theoretical underpinnings of programs and their degree of actual implementation (Figure 1).

I also address the issue of which students should be included in the national testing program and what accommodations should be made. I recommend that students with a language proficiency score below a level 3 on the 5 point FSI equivalent scale, as assessed through a recognized instrument, should be exempted from testing. I based this recommendation on studies that indicate that the language skills of listening and speaking are developed more rapidly in second-language learners than reading and writing skills. Consequently, it is difficult to measure language proficiency through literacy tasks at the lower levels with any degree of reliability and validity. See De Avila, E. (1997, November) for description of studies that support this recommendation.

Furthermore, schools that participate in the voluntary national testing program must ensure that students in fact meet the criteria, with preference given to exemption from the study, rather than inclusion in ambiguous cases. This will prevent the contamination of testing data based on low levels of language proficiency and help us cull out factors that truly define performance in public schools that is indistinguishable from that of mainstream students. This will also prevent misuse of NAEP data for attacking public education for political purposes based on false rises or declines in scores, as may have occurred between 1992 and 1994 with the scores of Hispanic students in California.

I also recommend that parallel bilingual versions of the test be developed for the major languages represented in school populations. These should be administered to students who are classified as biliterate. Through such testing, performance factors due to the language of the test can be detected by comparing individual students' scores. This may also act as an incentive for schools to implement programs to promote biliteracy. Reasonable accommodations in test administration should continue to be made for language minority students to maximize their performance on the national test.

Thank you for the opportunity to express my views before this distinguished panel. I applaud your efforts and pledge my continued support to ensure equal educational opportunities to fully develop the potential of our nations most valuable resource, our children.

Figure 1

Programmatic Features for Evaluation  of Implementation of a  Language Minority Education Model

1. Teacher Professional Preparation and Certification

Do teachers assigned to the program have pre-service training in models of language-minority (LM) education, methods of instructing language-minority students in English language development and academic content, and assessment procedures for LM students? How many are bilingual in the primary language of the students’ and English? How many of them hold specialized teaching credentials or certificates for instructing LM students? How many hours of professional development have teachers assigned to the program received in these areas?

2. Curriculum and Instructional Materials

To what extent is the theoretical model of the LM program clearly articulated in a policy document or curriculum plan? To what extent is the adopted model of LM instruction actually being carried out in practice? Is there a sequence and progression defining what should be taught at each grade level? Is this sequence and progression aligned with the language arts and content standards required by the state and/or local school district? Have teachers received in-service training in how to implement the curriculum? What appropriate support materials are available for teaching English language development, second-language reading and "sheltered" academic content?

3. Primary language literacy and content instruction

What guidelines or policies are in place in the program for instruction in the primary language of the students? Are students taught literacy initially in their primary language? If so, what procedures or guidelines exist for transfer of literacy skills from the primary language to English?

4. Affirmation of primary-language culture

To what extend is the primary-language culture recognized, validated and included in the program? Is there a policy that marginalizes or denigrates the primary-language culture? What is the extent of parental involvement and communication between the home and school? Do parents participate meaningfully in educational and programmatic decisions affecting their children? 


Anderson, N. (1998, July 22). Success in any language. Los Angeles Times.

California Department of Education (1998). On-line resource

Colvin, R.L, & Anderson, N. (1998, July 1). State High School Scores Trail U.S. in Reading Education: Best subject is language, including 57% of California seventh-graders above the national average. Los Angeles Times.

De Avila, E. (1997, November). Setting expected gains for non and limited English proficient students. NCBE Resource Collection Series No. 8. Arlington, VA: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.

Nguyen, T. (1998, July 6). ESL kids test higher than English-only. Los Angeles Times.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2000). Linguistic genocide in education or worldwide diversity and human rights. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.