Testing someone with limited English proficiency for history or science — with a test written in English — is absurd, because most of what you’re going to measure is how little they can read the exam.
Here’s a fact: The No Child Left Behind law requires every state to routinely test students in its schools in a variety of subjects — but it doesn’t tell the states how to conduct those tests. So states have a lot of discretion.
Here’s a scenario: What if a state were to base its history exams on basketball scores? Every student would walk up to a free-throw line, take 100 shots, and the number they make would represent their knowledge of history (76 baskets is a score of 76).
For many students, this would be a great test. Varsity basketball players would probably score extremely well on the knowledge of basic history required to be informed citizens. For other students, like those in the history club, this standard might not work out.
But you can bet there would be a lawsuit.
When the state attorney general defends the Free-Throw History Exam in court, he’ll make the following points:
1. It’s consistent. Students tend to get similar scores if they take it several times, although scores do improve with practice.
2. It’s objective. There’s no subjective criteria for determining whether a shot was made or not. If multiple people grade the same exams, they come up with the same history scores for the students taking them.
3. It has predictive power. It accurately predicts that students who score high on their history exams are more likely to be exceptional student athletes.
In conclusion, the attorney general would say, this is a valid test.
Besides, what makes the courts think they have any place setting educational policy? That’s a job for the elected representatives of the state. Once the courts start telling the state how to give a test, they might as well make judges principals.
To this barrage of logic and the separation of powers, outraged parents could make only one, very small, objection: The Free-Throw History Exam doesn’t actually measure knowledge of history.
Who should win this case?
Now let’s go back to the real world, where a real state — well, California — has put forward an argument virtually identical to the one made for the Free-Throw History Exam, and a real court — well, in California — has found that the state’s argument should stand.
In this case, though, the tests being challenged don’t involve basketball. They involve giving federally mandated tests, in English, to limited-English speakers.
Now, anyone who lives in a country ought to learn the language. More importantly, schools have a duty to make limited-English speakers into proficient users of America’s common tongue; not for moral reasons but because the ability to read and write in English has been shown over and over to be a crucial component of future academic and career success in the United States. This is true of both native-English speakers and non-native speakers. If you’re living in America and you can’t read English well, then your future is on the line.
It is both right and compassionate for schools to do everything in their power to teach English language proficiency to every student; and they have an obligation to test for it.
But we have tests for English skills. They’re called English tests.
Testing someone with limited English proficiency for history or science — with a test written in English — is absurd, because most of what you’re going to measure is how little they can read the exam. Like the Free-Throw History Exam, these tests don’t actually measure what they’re supposed to, making them of absolutely no educational value.
According to a recent decision by California’s First District Court of Appeal, that’s OK; federal law specifies that school systems have to test — it doesn’t say anything about the tests having to make sense.
The current interpretation of the federal education law, then, allows the Free-Throw History Exam. And there’s no reason to suspect your state is doing any better. There’s no requirement that states accurately “measure” anything at all — just that they test, and test, and test.
That’s why, like California, very few states have conducted the kind of quality review necessary to make sure their tests are measuring what they’re supposed to.
Isn’t that the very definition of crazy?
Benjamin Wachs writes for Messenger Post newspapers.