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English learners in Virginia being asked to come to school to take standardized test
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English learners in Virginia being asked to come to school to take standardized test

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RICHMOND — The Virginia Department of Education is asking English language learners to take a federally mandated English proficiency test in person. But as COVID-19 cases hit record highs in Virginia, some teachers say that any in-person testing is irresponsible, and they want state Superintendent James Lane to advocate alongside them.

State education officials say the ACCESS test, which is taken annually, is needed now more than ever due to the pandemic. WIDA, the company that administers the test in Virginia, did not provide a remote option.

“Ultimately, significant concerns of equity, burden on local educators and families of multilingual learners, validity, security and costs associated with a remote administration of ACCESS outweighed the potential benefits,” the company stated on its website, of opting against a remote option.

Teachers have equity concerns of their own with the required in-person testing to a group mostly made up of students of color. The state education department has extended the window for testing to allow fewer students to test at a time, but critics of the plan say they expect more from Lane.

Teachers who work with English learners also are questioning the validity of test scores collected during a time when school environments have been upended because of the pandemic.

Teachers Tori Pierson and Anne Forrester launched a petition that more than 500 people have signed over concerns about requiring students learning English to test in person, especially as a majority of those students in Virginia are Latino. Out of Virginia’s nearly 104,000 ELL students, about 74,000, or 52% of them, are Latino, a population that has been highly impacted by COVID-19.

According to a study from Stanford University, more than half of all in hospital deaths related to COVID-19 in the U.S. were made up of Black and Hispanic people.

“We really need people with more authority and power to match our efforts,” Forrester said in an interview. “To speak up and address the fact that regardless of what the law says, or what the federal government decides, it’s reckless and not safe to ask kids and families to come in to take an in person test right now.”

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The National Association for Bilingual Education, TESOL International Association, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and other organizations who advocate for ELL students echoed teachers’ concerns in a Dec. 29 letter.

“With the increasing surge in COVID-19 cases, schools that operated in-person or hybrid learning models have also reverted back to virtual learning,” the letter stated. “Forcing students to attend schools that have been closed due to health risks solely for testing will likely only raise stress levels for students, impacting the validity and reliability of their assessment results.”

In Georgia, state Superintendent Richard Woods, has publicly advocated for the need to waive all federally mandated testing during the pandemic.

Woods was denied a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education. Former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a statement that states shouldn’t expect any waivers for testing mandated by under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Woods vehemently spoke out in objection to DeVos.

When asked if Lane was in the position to do the same, Pyle said department officials thought the best thing to do was offer more flexibility to allow fewer students in one testing location at once.

“Rather than pursue an avenue that was closed, our focus has been on providing as much flexibility as possible for the administration of these federally mandated assessments,” Pyle said in an interview, “and recognizing that it’s important to assess where these students are in terms of their acquisition of English one year after schools were closed.”

Oher English proficiency test companies, like the Data Recognition Corporation, have adopted a virtual testing option. But to switch to a different test, the Virginia Board of Education would have to vote on the matter. The department would then have to go through a lengthy process to have that test approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

The ACCESS test is taken in four sections: Speaking, Listening, Reading, Writing. It’s usually taken over a course of days for all ELL students. Teachers are allowed to opt out of proctoring duties, but students can’t opt out of testing.

The risk of catching COVID-19 could cause a high number of teachers to opt out, leaving fewer teachers to proctor students over an increased time period.

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