Making sense of testing: English language learners and statewide assessment

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Making sense of testing: English language learners and statewide assessment

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The federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 has dramatically changed the educational landscape for all students by increasing the number of standardized tests used for accountability purposes. The impact is profound on students for whom English is not their first language, in part because of the sheer number of tests they are required to take. The challenges increase when tests become high stakes for students in the form of high school exit exams, an increasingly prevalent requirement in states, though not required under NCLB. The policies for tests are complex and can easily be viewed as devoid of any attention to the human side of testing--the ground level, nuanced, and sometimes complicated application of policy at the student level. Yet it is at this level where a policy becomes truly validated. The literature on accountability testing rarely considers student perceptions. This research is an attempt to contribute to that void by combining a student voice paradigm with a sense-making framework. Case study methodology was used and incorporated methods that moved from breadth towards depth as the study evolved. In the case of this research, that evolution was from participant observation (Phase I) to document review, inquiry groups and interviews (Phase II). Participants' pre-existing knowledge and experiences with testing are explored alongside the new knowledge gained as participants in this research study. Findings clearly demonstrate that the stakes connected to testing influence the ways in which students make sense of testing, as do the policy signals. Beyond contributing to the fields of educational policy and student voice initiatives, the intent of this research is to spur advocacy on behalf of and in conjunction with English language learners. Whether for systems accountability (the Test of Emerging Academic English), or for individual accountability as a requirement for a diploma in Minnesota (the Basic Skills Tests), the findings reveal both the complexities of and urgency for exploring testing policies from students points of view. Additionally, findings validate the need for students' voices in policy research, and suggest several implications based on reported experiences with statewide testing.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. July 2008. Major: Education, Curriculum and Instruction. Advisor: Bigelow, Martha. 1 computer file (PDF); xii, 196 pages.

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Stone, Karla Rae. (2008). Making sense of testing: English language learners and statewide assessment. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

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