Every year, kids in Maine schools have to take all kinds of standardized tests, each with its own acronym — MEA, SAT, NWEA. Students who are still in the process of learning English have to take a test called the ACCESS for ELLs, or “English language learners,” which gauges English proficiency in other subjects, such as science and math.
Maine’s standard for this test is the highest in the country, and some teachers believe it’s hurting students emotionally and academically.
In Portland, there’s one day each school year that many students say they dread. It’s the day when certain students are called down to take the ACCESS for ELLs test.
“At my school, they call you on the intercom. So, like, the whole school knows,” says one Deering High School student who didn’t want her name used. “You’re excused that way. And it’s almost like they’re outing you.”
The student says there’s a stigma attached to being labeled an English language learner. It’s worse for those in honors and AP classes.
“It’s almost like you’re the anomaly just because you’re in an Advanced Placement class,” she says. “You get the look, and it’s like, ‘Why are you here?’ And that just doesn’t feel right to me.”
“That’s where the feeling different comes in,” says Grace Valenzuela, the director of the Multilingual and Multicultural Center at Portland Public Schools. “And for teenagers, that’s huge.”
Valenzuela is among those who feel that the standard that Maine has set for students to no longer be classified as English language learners is too high. For years, Maine has required students to get a 6.0 on the ACCESS test to leave that classification — higher than any other state.
Valenzuela has long felt this needs to be lowered. She says in her district, grades and SAT scores are nearly identical for students who score a 5.0 on the test to those who score a 6.0. She says that means that many proficient students are being labeled as English language learners, which hurts their confidence and eventually even their grades in class.
“Is it bad to exit a 6? No, because we want the highest standards for our students,” she says. “However, if the high standards diminish your self-concept, then I think we’re hurting the kids more than we’re helping them.”
But Nancy Mullins, the state’s director of English language acquisition and bilingual programs, says Maine needs rigorous standards in order to ensure that students who are learning English get enough support.
Mullins says that the state Department of Education has recently taken a hard look at statewide ACCESS test scores to ensure that the students who exit English language services can perform at the same level academically as native English speakers. That has made her confident in Maine’s relatively high standard.
“It isn’t always anecdotal. And I can’t always just rely on what my gut feels,” she says. “So it is a data-driven decision that we have.”
However, changes to the ACCESS test this year have prompted the department to take action. Recently, the WIDA Consortium, which creates the ACCESS test, increased the rigor of the test to align with tougher federal standards.
After looking at early results, the department says it became obvious that very few students could reach that new, even harder 6.0 standard. So last week, the state announced that it would be lowering the exit score to a 5.0, which it says is about equivalent to a 6.0 score using the old standards.
But educators say that number needs to be lowered even further. Valenzuela says she wants it brought down to a 4.5. According to the WIDA consortium, that’s the standard that most states are setting their exit criteria at this year.
In both Portland and Lewiston, officials say all of these changes mean that fewer students will likely be exiting ELL services this year.
Hilary Barber, the ELL coordinator for the Lewiston School Department, also worries about the distrust that has formed in her district. She says it happens often when families see their child get high grades and take AP classes but continue to be designated as an English language learner.
She’s concerned that the more rigorous standards — and lower scores — may make parents question the value of the ACCESS test.
“That this test isn’t valid, or this test is too hard. And [parents] can’t go by those recommendations,” Barber says.
Robert Linquanti, with the nonprofit research firm WestEd, says Maine isn’t alone in dealing with these questions. He says federal requirements under the new Every Student Succeeds Act are forcing many states to look at their own standards and ensure that they’re providing the right services for non-native English speakers.
The Maine Department of Education says it will keep looking at data to make sure it’s doing what’s best for students. And DOE consultant April Perkins is currently touring the state and holding forums to listen to students, parents and teachers about how schools can improve education for students learning English.
“We need to be looking at data. We need to do this from a very reasoned point of view,” she says. “But we also need to think about the emotional and psychological effects of the policies and how those play out in reality.”
Perkins says that means the state won’t just be looking at test scores, but also at how to reduce the stigma around English language learners that still exists in schools across Maine.