Helping Advance English-Language Proficiency in the U.S.

Because many negative aspects of immigration are getting increased attention today, most Americans could use some positive news about people who have come here from other countries who are making a difference in others’ lives.

It’s estimated that there are close to 5 million English Learner (EL) students in America now, or about 10 percent of the student population. But, according to ETS Research Scientist Alexis Lopez, the figure is expected to rise to almost 40 percent by 2030.

John Norris, the Senior Research Director at ETS’s English Language Learning & Assessment (ELLA) center, sees English language learning as a vital part of the company’s mission. “I would say fundamentally, in relation to domestic English-language learners, we have to have good assessments of their language proficiency and we need to help teachers learn how to better meet their needs. These efforts will help to enhance equity across the actual population of learners in U.S. schools.”

Norris notes that simply immersing non-English speakers into U.S. society and into English-medium classrooms does not reflect evidence of best practices for helping ELs learn. He adds that this approach has been a “historic problem that we haven’t done a good job of responding to with research, policy or practice.” However, he does see progress.

About half of Norris’s team have international backgrounds as do many others on the campus of ETS.

One who concentrates on the domestic side is Mikyung Wolf, a Senior Research Scientist. “EL students bring with them multilingual and diverse cultural assets to school. Realizing these students’ potential through proper education will add a tremendous resource to the globalized economy and increasingly diverse societies. At our center, one of our research foci is on developing evidence-based guidelines to inform the development of high-quality assessments and effective instruction to help EL students improve their English-language proficiency,” she says.

One of the goals is to work with teachers and co-develop useful tools and strategies in order to better address EL students’ linguistic needs for their academic success.

~ Mikyung Wolf

To that point, Wolf recently was awarded a three-year grant from the William T. Grant Foundation, which is concerned with reducing inequalities that EL students may face in educational settings. Wolf and her colleagues aim to find out what language demands and skills are embedded in standards, state assessments and instructional materials for ELs.

“One of the goals is to work with teachers and co-develop useful tools and strategies in order to better address EL students’ linguistic needs for their academic success,” she said, adding how important professional support is for both the language teachers and the content teachers, who may not have received the same training to address EL students’ needs. The tools to be produced from this project are intended to be a good resource for professional support.

Lopez, who focuses primarily on assessing the language proficiency and content knowledge of EL students in K–12, explained that one of the major challenges in schools that have a large number of EL students is that not all the content teachers have the resources needed to effectively support EL students. ETS is developing a formative assessment framework and tools that can help simplify directions, give feedback to students and teachers, and reinforce instruction with self-directed work. “Teachers welcome that a lot,” Lopez said.

I’m very happy that ETS is emphasizing new activities such as language learning in addition to our traditional focus on language testing. The full scope of language education, including teaching, learning and assessment, is what is really at stake here and we have a lot to offer.

~ John Norris

The speed and effectiveness of ELs achieving English-language proficiency “depends on the age they come in to the schools and their proficiency level when they arrive,” Norris says. “If they arrive in high school with low proficiency, they are going to have a hard time and they need different kinds of support. If they come in when they’re young, in elementary school, there are a lot of opportunities for them to develop both linguistically and cognitively.” However, there are wide discrepancies in how different school districts structure English instruction as well, according to Norris.

ETS has also been awarded a contract from the California Department of Education to develop the state’s English Language Proficiency Assessments for California (ELPAC) in order to serve 1.4 million EL students. Currently, ETS is working on the transition of the paper-based ELPAC to the computer-based administration. ETS is helping to make sure this transition is implemented based on research and best practices.

Despite sometimes turbulent political winds, Norris is optimistic that efforts at supporting English- language acquisition can continue to evolve in line with the massive growth in the projected numbers of ELs. “I’m very happy that ETS is emphasizing new activities such as language learning in addition to our traditional focus on language testing. The full scope of language education, including teaching, learning and assessment, is what is really at stake here and we have a lot to offer.”