Criticism mounts over fluency test

The Associated Press
Monday December 10, 2001

LOS ANGELES – Criticism is mounting among school officials over a new test designed to track students who are not fluent in English – one-fifth of the state’s public school population. 

Officials say the California English Language Development Test is poorly designed and too time-consuming to score. 

“It is a well-intentioned test that is just so cumbersome and expensive as to be ridiculous,” said Wayne Johnson, president of the California Teachers Association, who last month wrote a letter to the State Board of Education calling for the program to be revised. 

In addition to its use in tracking students who lack English fluency, the test is administered to new students from homes where the primary language spoken is not English. About 2 million students in the state took the test this year. 

The results will be used in tracking and placing students and determining certain kinds of funding. 

The test’s critics cite problems ranging from awkward instructions and layout to the length of time it takes for the tests to be scored. 

For the oral section of the test, the exam booklet opens with one page facing the student and the other the tester. As the student listens to a recording and answers questions on one side, the tester marks the answers on the adjacent page. 

The unusual design distracts and intimidates students, said people who have administered the tests. 

And although the tests were given between May 14 and Oct. 31, districts have yet to receive any scores back from the state. 

Paul Warren, the state’s deputy superintendent of accountability, said the bulk of the tests reached the state closer to Oct. 31, creating a backlog. 

But even districts that finished their tests early have not received results, making it difficult for them to place students and apply for funds that depend on test results. 

CTB/McGraw-Hill, the publisher of the test, said all the scores will be ready on or before Feb. 28 – more than halfway through the school year – but could not say how much of the work had been completed so far. 

Districts had the option of scoring the tests themselves, but many said they did not have the resources to do so. 

Critics point out that the state spent more than $15 million on the test this year, not including include the estimated $20 to $30 per test spent by the districts. They say schools shouldn’t have to expend even more resources to get timely scores. 

“We rushed and we spent a lot of money,” said Darci Knight, language acquisition coordinator for the Pleasant Valley School District in Camarillo, which administered 600 tests by June. “And, of course, we got no results.” 

One problem with scoring is that, unlike most standardized tests, the test does not come with a separate answer sheet. 

Even the legislator who sponsored the bill requiring the statewide English testing says she’s grown concerned. 

The level of “dissatisfaction with the CELDT is troubling, to say the least,” state Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Whittier, said in an October letter to California Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin. “In fact, I am gravely concerned that the problems they raise and the resulting aversion for the test – if not addressed swiftly and fully – will undermine the success” of the exam. 

State education officials say they are studying ways to improve the test, including having the districts produce the official scores so they don’t have to wait for final results from the publisher. 

“We always have bumps and scrapes through the first administration of a test,” Warren said, “and this is one.”