For decades, teachers and parents had little formal data about the English skills of bilingual students and how well they were likely to perform when they transitioned into an English-only class.

Now, the state’s two-year-old English proficiency test, called ACCESS, is providing that missing piece of the puzzle. But the news is mixed. Fewer than a quarter of CPS bilingual students reached benchmark proficiency levels this year, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Education. (The number could be higher since the state does not have complete data for another 22 percent of CPS students who took the test; the district still transitioned most of those students.)

However, English learners could end up staying in bilingual programs for up to seven years since test scores have become the main factor that determines whether and when a student transitions out, says Office of Language and Cultural Education Director Diane Zendejas.

State and district policies include provisions allowing children to be in bilingual programs for up to six years if school officials say a student needs the extra years of native-language instruction. Zendejas says she will let students stay in for a seventh year if their scores warrant it. In 2007, only 34 percent of students in their sixth year of bilingual education transitioned out, according to CPS data. Chicago has consistently lagged behind other parts of the state when it comes to moving bilingual students into English-only instruction.

Before ACCESS was adopted, districts used one of a number of English proficiency tests on a state-approved list. Scores on those tests, the length of time a student had been in bilingual education and the teacher’s impression of a student’s ability all factored into the decision about when to transition a student out of a bilingual program.

Paula Stewart, bilingual lead teacher at Juarez High School in Pilsen, says relying primarily on a formal measure of a student’s English proficiency is a better way to make transition decisions. She also likes the fact that ACCESS is given every year, giving teachers and administrators a regular check on how students are progressing.

“I like the idea of measuring the student to make a decision,” Stewart says. “It is good that we are finally looking at it.”

The federal No Child Left Behind Act sparked the closer look that bilingual students are now receiving with ACCESS. The law calls for English-language learners to take proficiency tests to show their progress in learning English and signal when they were ready to leave bilingual programs.

In line with that requirement, Illinois developed learning standards for English learners and began using ACCESS in 2006. The test was developed by the nonprofit WIDA (World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment) Consortium, a group of 15 states that collaborates on developing standards and standards-based tests for English learners.

What students need to know

Tim Boals, executive director of the consortium, says older language proficiency tests tended to focus on basic, conversational English and “when students left ELL classes, they fell on their face.”

The consortium focused on what students need to know to be successful in a class taught in English. “We asked ourselves, ‘What does the language in math look like? What does the language in social studies look like?'”

To determine what students need to know, the consortium used the member states’ learning standards. “If you are teaching to the standard, you should do better on the test,” he says.

Accordingly, scores on ACCESS should have some correlation to performance on state exams, such as the ISAT, once students are in English-only classes. Maine, one member of the consortium, is doing research on the issue and has found that there is a correlation.

Robin Lisboa, Illinois State Board of Education division administrator for English-language learners, says having the test aligned to standards has changed what happens in the classroom. Having standards for English learners also helps college and university education schools know what bilingual teachers should be teaching.

“It has helped not just bilingual teachers, but also mainstream teachers to understand where the child is and what the child needs to be learning,” she says.

On a scale from 1 to 6, Illinois requires that students score a 4 on the ACCESS to be transitioned from a bilingual program. Boals notes that a child who scores a 4 still is not fully proficient in English and should get additional support.

Timothy Shanahan, a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago who edited a book on studies of bilingual education, says he is not so sure proficiency tests that focus on classroom vocabulary will produce better results. If they are teaching very specific vocabulary, such as “rhombus,” it might even be a waste of time. What students need, he says, is higher-level vocabulary that goes beyond conversational English.

“Technical vocabulary will be covered in the classroom,” Shanahan says.

But Nancy Villarreal-Adler, interim director of the National Association for Bilingual Education, says any state that is using standards to help set its bilingual curriculum is heading in the right direction.

Before NCLB, she says, English learners were in the shadows of education.

“These children did not count,” Villarreal-Adler says. “No one was accountable for them and what happens when no one is accountable? People don’t make much of an effort.”

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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