Common definition of English-language proficiency needed

iStock_000014316766XSmallIn the February issue of Educational Researcher, Jamal Abedi reports that there are major issues concerning testing students with limited English proficiency (LEP). The No Child Left Behind Act holds states using federal funds accountable for students’ academic achievement. States are required to develop a set of yearly academic assessments in reading/language arts, mathematics and science. Annual yearly progress (AYP) must be reported in terms of the percentage of students scoring at the proficient level or higher. All students must reach proficiency no later than the 2013- 2014 school year. AYP must be reported for the following subgroups of students: economically disadvantaged students, racial and ethnic minorities, students with disabilities, and students with limited English proficiency. Abedi argues that there are major technical problems related to the testing of students who speak limited English. Four and one-half million students are described as limited English proficient — 9.6 percent of the total school enrollment in this country.

First, LEP classification is inconsistent. Different states and districts use different classification criteria, and, therefore, the population of LEP students differs significantly in terms of family characteristics, cultural and language background, and level of English proficiency. This directly affects the accuracy of AYP report ing for these students.

Second, the sparse populations of LEP students in some schools are not enough for a meaningful analysis. Small populations of students do not provide statistically reliable data; a minimum of 25 students is needed for reliable conclusions. However, in order to detect a moderate level of change of five or six percentage points, for example, several hundred students would be needed. Abedi reports that very small subgroups skew some states’ accountability and adversely affect policy decisions.

There is also a lack of group stability. As students improve their skills, they lose the LEP label; only those who continue to perform poorly stay in the LEP group. Therefore, there is not much chance for this group to improve its AYP since, by definition, it continually loses its higher-performing students. Thus, schools with large numbers of LEP students will remain “in need of improvement.”

Tests constructed for native speakers

Academic achievement tests are constructed and formed for native English speakers and have lower reliability and validity for non-native speakers. Items that are linguistically complex contribute largely to the measurement error observed for limited-English speakers. LEP students also do not perform as well simply because they read more slowly, which negatively affects their results, especially on norm-referenced tests. Therefore, results may not be able to be interpreted in the same ways for both populations. Because most content tests require students to have English-language skills as well as content knowledge to perform proficiently, many limited- English speakers will only attain proficiency in content areas once they become language proficient. Currently, test scores underestimate the performance of limited-English speakers in content areas.

In addition, schools with high numbers of limited-English speakers have lower beginning or baseline scores than other schools. This means that their AYP goals are much more challenging and can be unattainable. Schools with large numbers of limited-English students may begin with only 25 percent of students at proficient levels. Their annual performance needs would be three times higher than in a school with a much smaller percentage of non-native speakers.

NCLB calls for all students to achieve at the proficient level in all subjects. Earlier legislation had allowed for non-native speakers to compensate for lower scores in areas with high language demand by earning higher scores in areas like math that have less language demand. The intention of NCLB is to improve the performance of all groups of students who have lagged behind for many years. Under the current AYP requirements, significantly more test-performance pressure is being placed on LEP students. In addition, many schools are struggling with the same limited resources to meet these much higher standards.

The results of research on the NCLB progress standards for students with limited English proficiency reveals that language confounds performance on the tests used to measure content knowledge. This group of students can not be expected to progress at the same rate as language-proficient students without dramatic new efforts to improve their language skills. Measuring the academic achievement of LEP students is much more complex than the NCLB legislation conceives.


There is a need to establish a common definition of English-language proficiency and to substantially improve the validity of language tests that measure proficiency. Tests can be enhanced by avoiding cultural biases and reducing unnecessary linguistic complexity. Schools need valid data-collection methods to monitor the progress of LEP students at every stage. Teachers must be well qualified in both language development and content areas to help students improve their test performance. Funding is necessary to train teachers for this dual role. Training must include content delivery, language sheltering and the teaching of academic language. States’ plans should allow students with limited English to remain in the LEP group throughout their school careers to monitor the group’s progress more fairly.

“The No Child Left Behind Act and English Language Learners: Assessment and Accountability Issues”, Educational Researcher, Volume 33, Number 1, February 2004, Pp. 4-14.

Published in ERN May/June 2004 Volume 17 Number 5

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