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New State Standardized Tests Pose Unique Challenges To New English Speakers

Gwendolyn Glenn

Students in Maryland and 11 other states and the District of Columbia will start taking new standardized tests in March to assess their progress in math and English Language Arts under the Common Core standards. But some education experts fear that students who are only beginning to learn to speak English will be at a disadvantage when they take the more rigorous, computerized exams.

They worry those students, known as English Language Learners, or ELLs, will have a hard time interpreting exam instructions or using a computer and mouse. They might not have enough time to understand the more complex questions, read material or write longer passages to answer questions.

Some schools with significant numbers of ELL students use an after-school reading program called “Imagine Learning” to boost their English and computer skills. Bond Mill Elementary in Laurel has 63 such students who attend the classes twice a week. The students start with a quick snack and then go to the school’s computer lab for individualized digital lessons that focus on vocabulary building, reading and comprehension. “They are immersed in specific strategies geared toward bringing on success in class, assessments and the PARCC,” said Principal Justin Fitzgerald.

PARCC stands for Partnership for Assessments of College and Careers. It replaces the old MSA exams for math and English Language Arts and is aligned with the Common Core standards. PARCC exams are computerized and students in the after school program get extra time learning how to use a computer. “I signed on all by myself,” second-grader Giselle Martinez-Morales said proudly.

School psychologist Abby Fenicle, who works with the program once a week, said several of the students had never touched a computer when they started the program but now are comfortable with it, a needed skill for the exams. “But they're not only learning how to manipulate a computer and mouse but other things that can translate to taking the PARCC,” Fenicle said.

The ELL students read stories through the program’s computerized lessons and use critical thinking skills to answer questions about them, as they will be required to do on the PARCC exam. “This program is helping them see what they're going to see on the PARCC,” said program coordinator Polly Gould. “They have questions that go with their stories that are formed in the way that the Common Core and PARCC form questions. If they get it wrong, it shows them where to go back to the text and figure out the answer using higher thinking skills.”

Guatemala-native Henry Sandoval wore headphones as he sounded out words that appeared on his computer screen into a microphone and matched them with pictures.  The directions he gets for his assignments are in Spanish, something Maryland will allow on the exam. His program will switch to English as he progresses.

All the students wear headsets as they work so they don’t disturb their neighbors who may be on different grade levels or on a different lesson because the work is self-paced. They can also record themselves. Gould listens to the recordings later to assess each student’s progress and determine where they need additional help. “The only ones that have the hardest times are the real newcomers because they don't have that vocabulary and they want to ask questions but during a test they can't,” Gould said. “The after-school program gives them a lot more vocabulary so they have the vocabulary they can use on the test.”

Fourth-grader Kamil Kamil, from Iraq, is a newcomer. “I need help with the meaning of this word,” he said, pointing to one of three words on his screen that he needed to match with an object. Kamil speaks English well but has trouble recognizing words and answering questions in stories where the answers are not black and white, but require more thought.

“We've gotten a dictionary for him that has English words and Arabic words. It's not a dictionary that gives you a definition, therefore he can use it on the test. It’s word-for-word only,” Gould said.

After the program ended, third-grader Neil Patel of India waited in the hallway for his parents to pick him up with his younger brother. Gould said he struggled a lot initially, but Patel said the program has helped him improve his English and reading. “(It has helped me) by giving me questions so I can get smarter,” Patel said.

As for his English, he said, it has helped him, “Like a little bit much.”

Mohib Anvara arrived to pick up his fourth-grade daughter Zara. Their native language is Pashto, and Anvara said Zara struggled with her English last year. He said she has made significant progress through the program and he predicted she will do well on the upcoming PARCC exams. “She has improved her writing ability and reading and is doing much better than last year,” Anvara said.  “She’s good with the computer too and works on it at home.”

In addition to the afterschool program, Gould works with the students in their regular classes. Principal Fitzgerald hopes all that will make a difference when his ELL students take the PARCC exam. “We don't expect all to get 100 percent advanced when it comes to taking the PARCC, but we're at least confident they are given every opportunity to succeed,” he said. “Come March, they’re going to be prepared.”