English proficiency test gets ‘F’ for stress

MICHIGAN STATE (US) — The nationally mandated language proficiency test, given to students whose second language is English, causes psychological stress for children who can least afford it, a new study shows.

Without some major overhaul, the English Language Proficiency Assessment is expected to negatively impact the academic success of the country’s more than 5 million English Language Learners (ELLs, defined as those who speak another language), warn researchers in the journal TESOL Quarterly.

“The test is supposed to measure how well a school teaches English, but the students feel it measures their own abilities and whether they’re a good person,” says Paula Winke, assistant professor of second languages at Michigan State University. “So students often don’t understand why the test is so difficult. They think, ‘Why am I such a failure?'”


Most affected, she says, are kindergarten through second graders, who often haven’t mastered holding a pencil to fill in bubbles or reading long paragraphs silently—skills required to take the ELPA.

Under the federal school improvement initiative No Child Left Behind, ELLs are required to take the ELPA every year—even if they’re bilingual and even if they don’t plan to take English language classes. The test measures students’ ability to speak, write, and read English.

Winke, who began her study after Michigan’s spring 2007 ELPA, gathered data from 267 test administrators, some of whom indicated their students “wished they weren’t Hispanic or Chaldean so they didn’t have to take the test.”

When parents indicate on school enrollment forms that another language is spoken at home, students become eligible for English language classes, Winke says. Michigan requires 100 percent of its eligible students to take the ELPA, even if they arrived in the United States days before the exam.

Government funding for English language programs is tied to school performance, she says, so there’s pressure from the top down to do well.

Winke says some test administrators indicated young children shook with fear and cried while taking the test. The situation was made worse because, by law, test administrators aren’t allowed to explain the instructions. In other cases, administrators said English as a Second Language classes weren’t available because teachers were tied up for five to eight weeks administering the test.

Teachers and administrators should be able to explain test directions, Winke says. Test questions should be better targeted to students’ grade levels, and when questions become too difficult, the test should stop. Winke says.

“The U.S. government and states are moving toward a more test-centric society, and we might want to put the brakes on that a bit and consider how these tests impact children.”

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