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Understanding the Interaction Between High-Stakes Graduation Tests and English Learners


by Julian Vasquez Heilig — 2011

Background/Context: The prevailing theory of action underlying No Child Left Behind’s high-stakes testing and accountability ratings is that schools and students held accountable to these measures will automatically increase educational output as educators try harder, schools will adopt more effective methods, and students will learn more. In Texas, the centerpiece of high school accountability is the pressure to improve exit test scores, a battery of minimum competency exams that students have to pass to graduate from high school. Despite the theory underlying accountability, it is unknown whether policies that reward and sanction schools and students based on high-stakes tests improve English learner (EL) student outcomes over the long term.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The purpose of the research is to better understand the interaction between high-stakes testing, accountability, and ELs. This study asks the following questions: Have student outcomes for ELs improved since the inception of accountability in Texas? To what extent does social capital theory inform our understanding of the impact of high-stakes exit testing on EL exit test performance in Texas high schools? What are the perceptions of teachers, principals, and students regarding the effects of high-stakes testing and accountability on ELs?

Research Design: This article reviews longitudinal student outcomes (test scores, dropout, grade retention, and graduation rates) for Texas ELs from the inception of accountability in 1993. To understand the interaction between ELs and high-stakes exams, the researcher undertook qualitative field work in high schools in four Texas districts with large numbers of ELs to understand how the life contexts of ELs interact with Texas-style high-stakes testing and accountability policies. Via administrator, teacher, and student perceptions of exit testing, the article attempts to shed light on the academic challenges faced by ELs in the current accountability context.

Conclusions/Recommendations: This article underscores the legitimacy of the concern that ELs experience unintended consequences associated with high-stakes exit testing and accountability policy and suggests that social justice and equity are ratiocinative critiques of high-stakes testing and accountability policies. The next round of federal and state educational policy must be a mandate that provides support for ELs to meet performance standards by providing evidence-based solutions: appropriate curriculum, pedagogy, and well-trained teachers. Furthermore, policy makers, practitioners, and researchers should be cognizant of the less intrusive approach that many ELs and their families have toward schools by reconsidering whether “one size fits all” high-stakes exit testing policies are plausible for increasingly heterogeneous student populations. The use of multiple measures of EL student success in content areas, such as portfolios, is an accountability mechanism that makes sense, not just for ELs, but for all students.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 113 Number 12, 2011, p. 2633-2669
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16201, Date Accessed: 10/20/2017 4:48:32 AM

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About the Author
  • Julian Vasquez Heilig
    University of Texas at Austin
    E-mail Author
    JULIAN VASQUEZ HEILIG is an award-winning researcher and teacher. His current research includes examining how high-stakes testing and accountability-based reforms and incentive systems impact minority students. Additionally, his work considers the sociological mechanisms by which student achievement and progress occur in relation to specific NCLB-inspired accountability policies in districts and schools for students of different kinds. He has recently published articles in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Journal of Latinos in Education, and Arts Education Policy Review.
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