Testing Our Sanity

A fourth-grade bilingual teacher shares her story of preparing students for mandated tests that are not developmentally appropriate.

By Kelley Dawson

-photo: reprinted courtesy of the artist.

President George W. Bush claims no child will be left behind under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. But testing required by the ESEA results in educational practices that are developmentally inappropriate and discriminatory for English language learners. In addition, pressure to raise test scores is causing significant negative changes in bilingual programs.

I teach fourth grade at a bilingual elementary school in Wisconsin. Our school, our district, and our state all have a commitment to bilingual education. But our ability to follow through on that commitment has been seriously compromised by the ESEA.

Last November my colleagues and I administered standardized tests to about 50 fourth graders, roughly half of them English proficient and the other half Limited English Proficient (LEP).

In September, the state informed teachers that all students with an English proficiency level of three or above must take the state standardized tests in English. Previously these students had been tested in Spanish, but the state Department of Public Instruction had negotiated the level-three cutoff with the federal Department of Education. This cutoff was of great concern to bilingual educators, because level-three and -four students, by definition, do not read and write at grade level in English. In fact, most level-three and -four students I know have good verbal English but are just beginning to read and write in English.

When we learned our level-three and -four students would be tested in English, the rush began. We were supposed to prepare about 25 LEP students to take a fourth-grade battery of standardized tests in English. We had about a month to get them ready.

We created small, intensive English transitional reading groups, unrealistically hoping that we could raise students’ reading levels from roughly a first or second grade level to a fourth grade level in a month. We began teaching math bilingually, explaining concepts in Spanish but pushing students to write explanations of their mathematical thinking in English because that’s how they’d have to do it on the test. Several non-classroom teachers were enlisted in this test preparation effort so that students could learn in small groups.

The teaching strategies mentioned here – transitional reading groups, a focus on math problem solving, and helping students write in English – are normal, positive aspects of our fourth-grade program. Most fourth graders make great gains in all of these areas over the course of a year as they make the academic transition to their second language – but it cannot be done in one month. What was inappropriate about this test preparation scheme was not necessarily the teaching methods we used, but the fact that we tried to force our students to make nearly a year’s worth of progress in one month so they would be ready for the test in November.

Another problem that this test-prep routine presented for our school was that several specialists and non-class-room teachers, including our special education teacher and mentor teachers, were pulled from their other duties in order to work intensively with our fourth-grade students on test-prep and to administer the tests. This helped our students but negatively impacted students at other grade levels.

In addition, our normal curriculum was interrupted for two months while we carried out this emergency test preparation plan. We put our math statistics and data unit on hold so that we could focus on general problem-solving skills and explaining mathematical thinking in English. We shortened Spanish reading instruction to 40 minutes a day. We shortchanged our social studies unit on conflict resolution and our science unit on the Milwaukee River ecosystem. We focused instead on packing in English reading and math before November.

In the two months leading up to the test, I attended planning meetings and work sessions with my partner teacher and several other staff members. We planned test-prep curriculum, organized the testing groups, and tried to figure out how to make the necessary accommodations for our LEP students. Each of us spent between two and six hours a week outside of the school day doing this work. This not only diverted our time away from other planning and teaching duties, but also cost our school a considerable amount of money, since we were paid for our work.

Finally the tests began.


Department of Public Instruction officials had informed teachers that they expected us to make every allowable accommodation so that LEP students could do their best on the tests. Allowable accommodations for LEP students included extra time on all five tests (English Reading, English Language Arts, Science, Social Studies, and Math); reading aloud the science, social studies, and math tests; and providing a verbal translation in Spanish of the science, social studies, and math tests.

These accommodations nearly tripled the time that LEP students needed to complete their tests. Our English proficient students spent about 6.5 hours altogether to complete their five timed tests. It took us seven days at two-and-a -half hours a day to finish the tests with our Limited English Proficient students . 17-and-a-half hours of tests.

One day I asked students to write about their experiences with the tests. The LEP students and English proficient students had different kinds of responses. English proficient students said things like: ” was fun because we took the test for an hour and we got to play math games and read for the rest of the morning” (while they waited for their LEP counterparts to finish). LEP students wrote things like: ” was hard because it took so much time, and I got tired.”

The math, science, and social studies tests took the most time and were the most grueling. We administered the tests in groups of six LEP students. We read each test item aloud twice in English, stated the translation twice in Spanish, and then gave the students time to think, work, and mark their answers. We moved on to the next question when everyone was ready. Imagine being ten-years-old and paying attention to this type of a learning situation for almost three hours every morning . not to mention trying to “do your best” on the test!

Students coped with the test in their own ways. Some shrugged it off and did their best even though they got tired. One boy shut down each day after about half the time, putting his head down and refusing to answer any more questions. A bright girl who has very high expectations for herself and was making great progress in English before the tests appeared increasingly downtrodden as the days went on. A very quiet girl suddenly burst out with “Teacher, this is crazy!” as I read the umpteenth question on the science portion of the test.

We teachers did not have the easiest time of it, either. During testing weeks we blew off steam by taking the kids out for kickball every day at noon when the tests were done and by counting the days of testing left. But the months of time and energy we spent preparing our students for a test that we do not feel is educationally useful took its toll on many of us. One colleague said she felt she was going crazy trying to reconcile what we were doing with her own vision of what education should be. I, too, felt this way and experienced an enormous amount of stress and desperation about the whole situation.

This process of trying to prepare the LEP students for the tests and administering the tests to them was unreasonable and educationally inappropriate. But my school and other schools engage in these kinds of practices because law requires us to, and because the stakes are high. Many of our bilingual schools are on the “schools in need of improvement” list. If we do not improve our scores, we face sanctions.

The ESEA and its testing requirements are implemented somewhat differently in each state; the federal Department of Education negotiates the details with each state”s education department. Some states, like California and Texas, offer Spanish standardized tests to students who have been in the United States for less than three years; other states like Wisconsin did away with Spanish testing and give alternative assessments to the small percentage of students who are not required to take the tests in English. But all states are under pressure to test more English language learners and to begin testing them after fewer years of English language instruction.

The national research shows that English language learners learn English best when they learn to read and write in their native language first. Then they can make a successful transition to reading and writing in English. This process is not quick . research shows that it takes five to seven years for students to function at grade level in academic English. Unfortunately, there are too many teachers, principals, and schools that are feeling pressured to ignore that research. They are short-changing literacy in students’ native languages and pushing English early because of pressure from the ESEA and English standardized tests.

Schools, districts, and states that want to provide quality bilingual education are finding that harder and harder to do given the pressure from the federal government. The ESEA seems designed to force English upon English language learners before they are academically prepared – a practice that is both pedagogically harmful and developmentally inappropriate.”

Kelley Dawson (skoolied@yahoo.com) teaches fourth grade at La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee, Wis. She is an editor at Rethinking Schools.

Summer 2003