Some testing help available for students still learning English

Despite language barriers that might hinder the learning, students who are non-native English speakers are still expected to complete statewide standardized tests, such as the upcoming ISTEP+.

Statewide tests are administered in English, which can cause students to perform poorly if their English language skills are not strong, educators say.

“It makes you sick to your stomach when they’ve been here six months and they have to take their assessment,” said Dana Schmidt, the English Language Learners instructor at Clifty Creek Elementary School, where 22.3 percent of the students are Hispanic.

However, there are some options available to help students who are still learning English when they take a standardized test, Schmidt said.

Students who are not native English speakers and who have been enrolled in an Indiana school for less than a year can take the ACCESS assessment in place of the language arts section of ISTEP, Schmidt said.

ACCESS is specifically designed to test the language skills of non-native English speakers.

However, minority students still have to take the standard English versions of the math, science and social studies assessments. In those cases, English learners can use a state-approved word-to-word translation dictionary to help them through the exam, Schmidt said.

Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. saw steady growth in minority students’ performances on ISTEP over the past six years under the old testing format, which ended in 2014, said Bill Jensen, BCSC director of secondary education.

In 2009, only 30.9 percent of English language learners passed both the English/language arts and math section of ISTEP, compared to 43.5 percent in 2009, a 12.6 point increase.

Under the new ISTEP format in 2015 — which was based on new, more rigorous standards — 48.6 percent of English learners passed both portions of the exam, according to the Department of Education.

Across the state, 53.5 percent of students passed both parts of the test. In BCSC, 57.2 percent of total students passed both portions.

However, the 2015 test was administered in a different format than in 2014, and the 2016 test will also be slightly different. Because of those changes, local educators say the results of the 2015 test cannot accurately be used to show student growth or decline for either English language learners or the general student population.

Jensen attributes the increase in minority students’ scores to the district’s commitment to teaching to all types of learners.

Specifically, BCSC has implemented the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) philosophy in all of its schools.

UDL is designed to appeal to all types of learners, whether they are high achievers or struggle with a learning disability or other impediment, such as a language barrier, Jensen said.

“It improves instruction for all students and it’s accessible for all students,’ he said. ‚ÄúThat’s the key.”

Upcoming ISTEP dates

The 2016 ISTEP+ part 1 exam begins on Feb. 29. A new testing vendor, Pearson, will administer the exam this year, replacing CTB – McGraw Hill. The exam will be administered electronically, with a paper and pencil option available to schools without sufficient technology.

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Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.