The Socio-Political Contexts of K-12 English Language Proficiency Assessment in the United States: Are We Bending the Arc Toward Justice?

3:20 - 5:20pm

Decatur B

Presented at: LTRC 2019

In Symposium: Language Proficiency Assessment and Social Justice in the US K-12 Educational Context

The United States conducts large-scale standardized testing of the English language proficiency of “English learners” (ESEA, 20 USC § 7801(20)), testing almost five million K-12 students annually (US Department of Education, 2018). This presentation traces the historical and social roots of US K-12 language testing from a social justice perspective. A pastiche of legislative, judicial, and federal funding efforts have led to the current system of required assessments.

Advocates for culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) learners have employed legislative and legal means to push for enhanced educational equity for students from minority language backgrounds. Cases such as Lau vs. Nichols (1974), as well as further legal and legislative decisions in the 70s and 80s, cemented the US socio-political commitment to provide English language supports to English learners.

The legal mandate to identify and provide language instruction to English learners requires a uniform means to identify these children. Additionally, protections are in place against prematurely removing children from instructional programs. Language testing is a primary tool used for these purposes, and tests are state-supported via statutory obligation and funding streams.

In the spirit of Shohamy’s (1998) call for a “critical language testing,” a key question at this juncture is whether widespread institutionalized language proficiency testing of children supports the social justice aims of ensuring access to educational opportunities. Critiques of the status quo question burdensome testing requirements for children, the prioritizing of English over other languages (e.g. Menken 2008), and the continued delegitimization of minority linguistic practices (Flores & Rosa, 2015).