Overtested: How High-Stakes Accountability Fails English Language Learners

reviewed by Henry Braun - October 24, 2011

coverTitle: Overtested: How High-Stakes Accountability Fails English Language Learners
Author(s): Jessica Zacher Pandya
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807752479, Pages: 160, Year: 2011
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Inequities in schooling and school outcomes have been on the nation’s education agenda at least since Reconstruction. The original ESEA, passed in 1965 as part of President Johnson’s Great Society program, was concerned with improving educational outcomes specifically for African-Americans. Since then, other sub-populations, including ELLs, have been added to the “circle of concern.” As is well-known, the 2002 reauthorization of ESEA, No Child Left Behind, made the academic progress of all recognized subgroups a national goal and a state responsibility.

With ELLs now comprising more than ten percent of the nation’s public school enrollment, their education should be a critical national priority. If we are not able to substantially reduce the gaps in achievement for this group (and others), millions of individuals will face a lifetime of struggle, with dire consequences both for them and for the health of our democratic society. Evidently, we have not been very successful in helping ELLs realize their academic potential, and the field continues to debate which strategies are most effective. That debate is sometimes complicated by legislative constraints, as is the case in California.

Overtested, by Jessica Zacher Pandya, tackles one aspect of the challenge faced by ELLs and their teachers; namely, the apparently baleful effects of the current reliance on high-stakes accountability on classroom practice and its consequences for student learning. Most of the book is based on the year that Zacher Pandya spent in a particular fourth grade classroom in a school in Southern California. Of the 28 students in the class, 21 were ELLS and 4 had been reclassified as Fluent English Proficient. The native language of these 25 students is Spanish, as is the case with their teacher, Ms. Romano. The school is situated in an economically depressed area, with about 90% of its students living in poverty.

Actually, the book’s focus is somewhat broader than the title suggests. The school had adopted, and been using for some time, Open Court, a structured language arts curriculum. Through her classroom observations she documents the interaction between, on the one hand, the use of a packaged curriculum with tight pacing and periodic assessments and, on the other hand, the pressure of holding schools accountable through one indicator of student achievement based on their performance on external standardized assessments.

The strength of the book is that it provides a rich description of daily life in the classroom as it is experienced both by the students and the teacher. She describes how the sequencing and timing of activities, as well as the classroom environment in which learning takes place, are shaped by the imposition of a highly regulated regime that incorporates mandated interim tests leading to the administration of a final summative assessment. Through quotes she illustrates how the hyper-focus on testing and test results influences students’ perceptions of the nature of language learning, as well as the state of their own competencies.

The relentless pressure to prepare for the next assessment apparently leaves little time for Ms. Romano to practice true differentiated instruction or to engage in the kind of pedagogical practices that she believes would be more beneficial for her students. For example, the forced pacing through the reading curriculum leaves little time for “meaningful oral language development” and “student engagement with ideas and texts.” Arguably, both are important components in the development of English language proficiency for ELLs (and others). The author asserts that this de-professionalizing environment is frustrating to Ms. Romano and, in the main, works to the detriment of her students’ academic progress.

Drawing on her classroom observations and conversations with Ms. Romano, the author also points out the complexities in interpreting results from standardized tests for ELLs. The discussion is somewhat marred by her misunderstanding of some aspects of testing. For example, she argues that it is unfair to classify ELLs on the basis of their performance on the California Standards Test “[which is] normed on native speakers’ scores.” However, this test is criterion-referenced so that the classification is determined by how the standards are instantiated as cut-scores on the reporting scale. That said, there are surely difficulties in making good use of the results from such tests – which are exacerbated by the pedagogically-relevant heterogeneity among ELLs, even in classrooms such as Ms. Romano’s. The author argues that test results likely underestimate what ELLs are able to do, leading to their placement in ostensibly lower ability groups with unfortunate implications for their academic trajectories.

The virtues of an intensive single case study are mirrored by its disadvantages: We don’t really know how much of what was observed is typical of Open Court classrooms and schools in California and how much is the result of the particular choices made both by the district’s and the school’s leaders with respect to the implementation of Open Court and by Ms. Romano, based on her training, experience, and level of competence.

As Zacher Pandya acknowledges, most of the concerns she raises apply to the general student population. Criticisms of the formulaic classroom dynamics characteristic of structured reading programs are legion. Similarly, there is a large literature on the perils of an over-emphasis on high-stakes testing, as well as the use of students’ test scores to evaluate teachers. Of course, improving the effectiveness of the nation’s teaching force is a perennial issue in education policy discussions – especially these days. Preparing teachers to be effective instructors for ELLs is a particularly challenging task.

Professor Zacher Pandya is not a wild-eyed radical. She appreciates the realities of education policy in California and the nation. She makes a number of sensible suggestions on how the implementation of pre-packaged curricula like Open Court could be made more ELL-friendly. Most would require school-level decisions but a few could be carried out by teachers on their own, provided they had adequate support. It would have been helpful if these suggestions were framed in the context of the published comprehensive “best-evidence” syntheses of the effects of different reading programs for ELLs and for the general population.

Further, drawing upon her own research and that of others, she makes recommendations on how the educational outcomes for ELLS, especially those living in linguistically segregated environments, could be improved. These include changes in the treatment of ELLs, teacher preparation, high-stakes testing practices and accountability systems. One example is the flexibility to instruct children in their native language, as well as in English – a strategy that finds considerable support in the literature, but not in some state legislatures! This is a broad, systemic agenda ,and it would have been helpful to link this to the thoughtful document prepared by the Working Group on ELL policy in anticipation of the ESEA reauthorization.

It is incontrovertible that we should do better by our ELLs. This volume offers some reasonable suggestions. However, it is not clear that it makes a case strong enough to be found convincing by those on the other side of the fence – or even those sitting on the fence.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 24, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16568, Date Accessed: 10/17/2021 9:07:20 AM

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