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Florida Advocates Ask Education Commissioner Corcoran To Delay English Proficiency Exam

Richard Corcoran
News Service of Florida
Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran

TALLAHASSEE --- As the organization overseeing the SAT test changes the exam’s format to relax requirements amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a group advocating for students learning English in Florida is asking the state to delay a yearly assessment.

Sunshine State students who are learning to speak English are set to be tested on their English-language proficiency starting on Monday.

But Alianza Center, a non-profit organization which advocates for Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics in the state, and LULAC Florida have launched a petition urging state Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to postpone the in-person assessments due to coronavirus safety concerns.

“Students are administered the speaking section of the test one-on-one with a teacher. The listening, reading, and writing sections may be administered in a group setting,” Johanna López, an Orange County school board member who is also executive director of Alianza Center, told the News Service.

The petition asks that "students who choose not to take the exam will not be disciplined, reprimanded, punished or sanctioned in any way for not participating during this health emergency." It also asks Corcoran to postpone the test "for the duration of the COVID-19-related health emergency."

According to the Department of Education website, Florida has more than 265,000 English-language learner students, who speak more than 300 languages.

“While we recognize the importance of annually assessing the acquisition of the English language of these students as required by state and federal laws, English Learners have experienced a number of stressors this academic year, including lockdowns, a different variety in their learning modes, family illnesses and educators under stress, and a wide variety of conditions that have, in effect, limited and affected their learning processes,” the petition says.

The ACCESS test for English learners, a “paper-based assessment” for students in grades 1-12, is administered between Jan. 25 through March 19, according to the Department of Education’s website. A test is also available for students in kindergarten.

The “overwhelming majority” of English-learning students “are first-generation immigrants of color” whose families are “agonizing” over what to do when the testing window begins, according to a press release issued by Alianza Center on Jan. 11.

“The choice is especially cruel for families that have been strictly quarantining for months, with students attending only online courses, and are now being asked to send their children to expose themselves to the virus in cramped testing rooms throughout the state,” the release said.

López said Orange County public schools have 29,597 English-language learner, or ELL, students, who account for more than 10 percent of the school system’s total population.

“We have to think about safety in terms of COVID, but also the psychological health of our students as well,” she said.

The exam “helps teachers understand whether students have the language skills they need to fully participate in the classroom,” according to the WIDA Consortium, the organization that developed the test.

“I see the importance for the ACCESS for ELL (students), because it is about English proficiency, so we can help our English-language learners better,” Lopez said in a recent phone interview. “But we believe that safety comes first.”

The statewide teachers union also supports delaying the ACCESS test.

Florida is “in the middle of a pandemic, and high-stakes testing should never come before the social, emotional and educational wellbeing of our students,” Florida Education Association president Andrew Spar said.

In a fact sheet published this week, the U.S. Department of Education said that states have “discretion in terms of how and when it conducts its statewide assessments” of English-language proficiency. But state agencies “should not anticipate the department waiving the assessment requirements for the 2020-2021 school year,” the federal education department said.

Meanwhile, the pandemic prompted the non-profit College Board to speed up changes to the SAT exam.

The board on Tuesday announced the immediate discontinuation of subject tests and the scrapping of optional written essays beginning in June.

“The pandemic accelerated a process already underway at the College Board to reduce and simplify demands on students,” a press release detailing the changes said.

Widespread use of Advanced Placement courses --- college-level instruction in various subjects, which are also under the College Board’s control --- rendered the need for SAT subject tests obsolete, the board explained.

“The expanded reach of AP and its widespread availability for low-income students and students of color means the subject tests are no longer necessary for students to show what they know,” Tuesday’s press release said.

Students have “other ways ... to demonstrate their mastery of essay writing,” making essays in reading or writing and language unnecessary, the board decided.

The Florida teachers union supports the College Board's move.

“The SAT and other high-stakes tests do not promote real teaching and learning, which should always be our goal,” Spar said in a prepared statement. “Further, we support the move by many colleges and universities to discontinue the use of high-stakes testing as an admission requirement, and to transition toward using other methods that allow students to demonstrate their readiness for the post-secondary level.”