Daniela is an energetic and chatty 13-year-old who moved to Boston from El Salvador in kindergarten. She can often be found whispering and giggling with friends. Drawing is her main interest, and during art class, when she stoops over her desk, her long brown hair shielding her painstaking work from view, you see her serious side. After some eight years in the United States, she speaks English as fluently as her Massachusetts-born classmates. Still, due to a learning disability, Daniela struggles to write complete sentences. Since kindergarten, her English proficiency scores on a standardized test called ACCESS, given to those who are not native English speakers, have varied widely. One year, she came close to passing; the next, she only scored at the beginner level. Daniela, a pseudonym I’m using to protect her identity as I will other children in this story, has taken ACCESS annually and, by 7th grade, has yet to pass.
ACCESS is American public schools’ most commonly used English language aptitude test. It is exclusively for English-language learners (ELLs) attending publicly funded K-12 schools. The exam is administered each spring, determining a child’s designation for the upcoming school year. Unfortunately, in my experiences as an English-language learning specialist, the exam’s one-size-fits-all format leads many students who no longer need English-language learner services to get stuck on this track. It’s another instance—along with college readiness exams, problematic reading assessments, and standardized graduation requirements—of the familiar and overzealous reliance on test scores that plagues K-12 education in America.
It’s disheartening to teach when more weight is placed on standardized tests than on teachers’ insights. Daniela was one of my 7th graders at Excel Academy East Boston, a public charter school where I worked from 2020 to 2022. (I’m about to start teaching at a non-charter public school in Greater Boston). The job at Excel, which has about 250 students in grades 5-8, involved working individually with English-language learners in small groups and assisting in full classrooms. I started at Excel with a Master’s of Education and a determination to level the playing field for kids.
In 2022, I wished there was a way to override Daniela’s ACCESS score, which kept her stuck in the English-language learners track. She had sped through the test that year, writing too quickly and leaving overly brief recordings on the speaking portion. Despite her low score, I knew she would be much better off exiting the English-language learner program. Had she matriculated from ELL services, Daniela would have benefited from a more flexible schedule allowing her to take more academic classes and spend more time with the special education learning support teacher (LST). It would boost her confidence, not in a phony way, but because she deserved to move on. Her struggles were not, I believed, tied to English being her second language, and I was not alone.
Another ELL specialist, Alyssa Ericson, shared my opinion. When I recently asked Ericson whether she thought Daniela should have been able to exit the ELL program, she said Daniela would have done better with only special education support instead of having to split her time between special education and ELL instruction. But her ACCESS score, rather than her teachers’ observations, dictated that she continue to receive ELL instruction. This may not seem like a monumental tragedy when kids often drop out or are floundering in school. But keeping Daniela in ELL classes was akin to treating a child with a hearing problem like you would a child with motor skills issues. It’s a misdiagnosis, and it harms them in substantive ways, denying them the best opportunities to advance and, in a sense, stigmatizing them for being outside the English-speaking mainstream when that is not the case. If a Salvadoran girl like Daniela now sounds just like Massachusetts-born kids from Swampscott, it’s wrong to keep her on a track designed for those who are English-language learners.
To understand Daniela’s plight, you need to know how students become English-language learners and how they are freed from that classification and join the rest of their peers. Children who speak other languages at home are screened when they first begin school to determine initial placement into programs for ELLs, which are sometimes referred to as “English as a second language” (ESL) and “English to speakers of other languages” (ESOL) programs. More than 10 percent of public school students are classified as ELLs. The National Education Association (NEA) expects that by 2025, one in four public school students will be an ELL. As per federal regulations, K-12 ELLs in public schools must take ACCESS or another standardized language proficiency test to measure their speaking, listening, reading, and writing progress in English at the start of the second semester. Students who earn a passing score can exit the ELL program the following school year. Some students get reclassified after a few years; others, like Daniela, are designated long-term ELLs. Consequently, Daniela’s classes are mismatched with her academic needs.
Schools began relying on ACCESS when President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 expanded standardized testing requirements in public schools, including mandated annual testing of English-learning students. Forty-one states and territories, including Massachusetts, use ACCESS to fulfill this yearly testing requirement; other states opt for equivalent tests that measure speaking, listening, reading, and writing.
Today, ACCESS is bound to the parameters of yet another law—the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that President Barack Obama signed in 2015 to replace No Child Left Behind. While the exact English-language learner reclassification process varies from state to state, ESSA strongly encourages states to rely on standardized test scores alone rather than various factors such as teachers’ assessments. Massachusetts is among the states that don’t allow students to be reclassified as non-ELLs unless they earn a passing score on ACCESS.
I’m not naïve. Schools must be held accountable for providing effective English language instruction to an ever-increasing number of ELLs in this multilingual country. I believe that standardized testing can be a means of doing so. Without testing, many schools would return to the days when they blithely made decisions about students’ academic trajectories without real accountability. In fact, less than 50 years ago, federal law did not even require ELL instruction in public schools. In 1974, the Supreme Court ruled in Lau v. Nichols that federally funded schools must provide supplemental English language courses to non-native English speakers, and standardized testing for ELLs became an integral aspect of the case’s legacy. That said, the tests must be one of several ways of measuring students, not the only method. Teachers, learning specialists, administrators, students, and parents should get to weigh in on whether a student can leave the ELL track behind. And when standardized tests are ineffective, schools should have the power to override them. The resistance to the standardized testing fetish of the last 25 years has mercifully grown, and it will, I think, eventually come to the ACCESS test, although it’s not there yet. Teachers and parent groups, principals, and special education groups have yet to rally for a more nuanced approach, perhaps because kids of immigrant families aren’t a well-heeled lobby. As a teacher who bore witness, though, I hope momentum will gather to end the overreliance on ACCESS.
When deciding whether to override an ACCESS score, school administrators should not conflate a disability such as, say, dyslexia with a failure to know English. ACCESS is supposed to measure English language proficiency in all learners, regardless of their learning needs. However, all ACCESS consistently demonstrates is which students have learning disabilities and which do not, even though this is not the purpose of the test. Remember, Daniela from El Salvador spoke English as well as the non-English learners. Her issues stemmed from a language-processing disorder.
Sure, the ACCESS test accommodates students, like Daniela, with disabilities, such as using paper instead of a computer, small group testing, and the option to repeat audio clips. But despite these welcome allowances, during my time at Excel Academy, the overwhelming majority of my ELLs with learning disabilities did not pass the test by 7th grade.
It didn’t seem coincidental that 100 percent of the older English-language learners at Excel—those in seventh and eighth grade—had learning disabilities, namely attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders (ADHD) and language-based disorders. Like Daniela, these “neurodiverse” students, as they’re called in educational parlance, struggled to pass ACCESS regardless of their English language abilities. Meanwhile, most of my 5th and 6th graders were “neurotypical” learners, meaning they didn’t have learning disabilities. That is because, by seventh grade, most neurotypical ELLs who attend Excel have lived in the U.S. for many years and can pass ACCESS. This means they get filtered out of the ELL program, leaving behind their neurodiverse peers.
Unfortunately, this sorting is not unique to my school. In 2021, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) found that among students who took the ACCESS exam, 44.2 percent without a disability and 23.6 percent with a disability made progress.
The longer students have been in U.S. schools, the likelier they will pass ACCESS. This means that there are fewer ELLs in older grades. However, the same cannot be said for ELLs with learning disabilities. The company that owns ACCESS published research findings demonstrating that ELLs with learning disabilities (defined as students who have Individualized Education Programs) are four times as likely to be classified as ELLs for longer than their neurotypical ELL peers. Just because neurodivergent ELLs struggle to pass ACCESS doesn’t necessarily mean that English-language classes should be their priority. Some of these students have a strong command of the English language but test poorly. Some students do not have a strong command of English, especially in reading and writing, but this is primarily due to their learning disabilities, not because their parents speak Spanish or Farsi.
For long-term English learners, staying in ELL programs can hinder academic progress, stigmatize these students and misuse schools’ resources. Certain ELLs with learning disabilities, particularly newcomers to the U.S., benefit from intervention from an ELL specialist even though they already receive special education support from a learning support specialist/special education teacher. My certification program prepared me to make lessons accessible for all types of neurodiversity among English-language learners. However, special education teachers are of greater use to students whose struggles with the English language stem from barriers such as dyslexia. Sometimes ELL support simply isn’t needed.
Support classes—including ELL instruction, special education, and interventions with reading specialists and speech-language pathologists—tend to replace other courses, such as arts-based electives, that provide opportunities for developing confidence, creativity, and connection between a wide array of learners. For students like Daniela, who have spent nearly their whole lives in the U.S. and have schedules brimming with support periods, it can be worth figuring out what to prioritize: ELL classes or mainstream academic and art classes.
ACCESS scores are a single piece of data from one point in time, yet they can set students on the wrong academic track with long-term repercussions. When ACCESS results dictate class placements that don’t correspond with students’ needs, teachers and specialists should be able to weigh in. This is only logical, considering that teachers and specialists have gathered hundreds of data points on students by the time ACCESS scores are released at the end of the school year.
Even Tim Boals, the founder and director of the WIDA Consortium, which owns ACCESS, allowed in a phone interview that “if you don’t understand what the limitations are, you may read too much into the score … [ACCESS] is a snapshot in time on a particular day, and we all know that students can have a bad day. So those things have to be taken into account.”
Boals described himself as one of the architects of the original ACCESS test. He thinks that as far as summative assessments go, ACCESS is “one of the better ones that are out there, and [it] can provide a valuable piece of information to teachers.” He is a proponent of WIDA’s “can do” approach; rather than focusing on deficits, WIDA’s tests highlight what students can do at different levels of language acquisition in various subject areas: English of science, English of social studies, and so on.
Talkative and friendly, with an upbeat voice, Boals eagerly recounted the history of WIDA and ACCESS, telling me the test is an improvement over its precursors. Despite his belief in ACCESS, Boals appeared unruffled and unsurprised when I mentioned students like Daniela, who struggle to pass the test but arguably shouldn’t be considered ELLs. He advises states and schools to “look at multiple measures” when reclassifying ELLs. However, he acknowledged the conundrum that schools may face when attempting to use other factors to gauge students’ English proficiency: “There’s a little bit of tension there because the U.S. Department of Education has encouraged states to standardize the process as much as possible.”
His company literature echoes Boals’s nuanced advice: “The purpose of ACCESS for ELLs is to monitor student progress in English language proficiency on a yearly basis and to serve as just one of the many criteria that educators consider.” [Emphasis added]
Alas, many state education officials from Boston to Santa Fe don’t allow students to exit the ELL program without earning a specific score—a practice encouraged, if not strictly enforced, by federal parameters under ESSA. Massachusetts, for example, is very strict about the reclassification process; students can’t exit the ELL program unless they have earned an overall score of 4.2 on ACCESS and a literacy score of 3.9. But Massachusetts is more lenient when the opposite issue arises: When students pass ACCESS but could still benefit from ELL services, some wiggle room allows them to keep their ELL status. Lauren Kafka, an ESOL teacher in the Maryland public school system in 2015, argued in The Washington Post that schools shouldn’t rely on ACCESS as the only factor in ELL placement. Her frustration with ACCESS resulted from many students testing out of the ELL program when they could have still benefited from its services. In Maryland, unlike Massachusetts, if students earn a specific ACCESS score, they cannot continue to receive ELL services. Although Kafka’s article brings up a different dilemma, it’s the opposite side of the same coin—a robotic reliance on ACCESS.
One reason not to be so tightly bound to ACCESS results is that the passing score is often in flux and varies from state to state. Roughly two years after Kafka’s lament, WIDA released a new version of ACCESS with more rigorous standards than the previous version. To avoid a dramatic decrease in the number of students exiting the ELL program, many states changed which score ELLs needed to earn to be reclassified as non-ELLs, for example, changing the passing score from a 5 to a 4. Jessica Haralson, an ELL teacher in Malden, Massachusetts, opposed the changes to ACCESS. She told Education Week, “The expectations for English-language learners are actually more arduous than what many monolingual students can actually produce. Tons of monolingual students would be classified as ELLs overnight if ACCESS were administered to all.”
Regarding ACCESS, the status quo isn’t working. But there is hope. According to Boals, if states want to establish more flexibility when it comes to ELL placement, they can develop specific procedures for doing so. Even though ESSA erected bureaucratic hurdles for schools that want to appeal an English proficiency test result, states can establish a process for overriding these results. This would let students like Daniela be placed in classes suited to their abilities.
Again, I’m not arguing against all standardized testing of ELLs. Standardized testing can provide valuable insights into bigger-picture trends and schools’ success with ELL instruction at large. But like many innovations, not just in education but elsewhere, over time, it’s become sclerotic and bureaucratic when it needs to be flexible and imaginative. When Boals designed the test, he envisioned schools exercising discretion in analyzing individual students’ scores. Even if more states implement appeals processes in the future and place less weight on English proficiency tests, ACCESS or otherwise, it is still vital to use thoughtfully created assessments, especially considering their costs.
ACCESS isn’t free. Massachusetts alone spent more than $3 million to have 101,004 students take the test in 2022, and the cost extends beyond money: It’s hugely time-consuming. “Teaching to the test” is a constant toll for teachers, and ACCESS is no exception. In 2022, the other ELL specialist and I spent over a month testing our 43 ELLs, despite administering it to multiple groups daily. This was frustrating to me as an ELL specialist. The rigid requirements of the 90-page administrator’s manual cause the test to be an enormous time commitment. ACCESS consists of four domains—reading, listening, speaking, and writing—and, generally, each part takes between 50 minutes and an hour and a half to complete. The manual’s burdensome rules, which include things such as who can test with whom, have unintended consequences. When students are absent, delays set in because a student taking the reading test, for example, cannot sit with those taking the writing test. If ACCESS aims to ensure that ELLs receive high-quality instruction, the assessment must not steal endless hours from such instruction.
Ericson, the other language specialist at Excel Academy, shares my concerns about the time-consuming nature of ACCESS and its questionable capacity to measure English language proficiency. When asked to share her feelings about the exam, she wrote to me: “I think ACCESS fails to make a distinction between students who know English well and test well and students who know English well yet test poorly. It’s an imperfect measure of a student’s ability to speak the language. It traps students in a cycle of testing that ultimately takes time away from learning.”
Not only does the test take away from learning time, but it can also damage long-term ELLs’ self-worth. José (again, a pseudonym) has a language-based learning disability, and by eighth grade, he’d had it with ACCESS. A social kid with an unusual sense of humor, José spent most of the test sessions humming, blurting out “would you rather” questions, flicking his pencil off his desk, and burping with gusto. Ericson and I arranged to have him test alone not to distract other students. I encouraged him to give ACCESS his best shot because he might pass and never have to see it again. José told me that trying was pointless and that he’d given up after eight years of trying. He seemed offended that his English level was still being measured because he obviously could speak English; the 14-year-old said he hardly spoke Spanish anymore. I reminded him that knowing Spanish was an asset and didn’t detract from learning English, but I’m not sure he understood that concept, which I found heartbreaking. At some point, long-term ELLs must be able to move on, passing or no passing score—a four-year limit would make sense for students who begin learning English in elementary school. (Some students who start learning English in their teens can benefit from slightly more time since language learning is a slower process for older kids and adults.). Multilingual kids deserve to be proud of their ability to speak multiple languages and learn how to use this superpower to their advantage rather than have a test tell them, year after year, that they’re deficient.
When I sent Boals a follow-up email to check whether his company is revising ACCESS, he wrote that he and the team “regularly examine issues of reliability, validity, and fairness.”
I was glad to hear that. From what I saw in the classroom, helpful revisions for ACCESS could stem from observations of students’ interactions with the test, teacher feedback surveys, and consistently tweaking (or discounting) questions that many students with disabilities get wrong.
According to Boals, two-thirds of ACCESS items are reused from one year to the next on each grade-level and proficiency-level test. (Tests are designed to be taken several years in a row in each grade-level cluster, but beginner-level and high-level students in the same grade will deal with slightly different versions of the same test). Multiple students ask me why they’re answering the same questions they did last year.
The goal of ACCESS is not to assess students’ ability to endure hours of repetitive questions, simple and uninspiring illustrations, and robotic-sounding audio clips. (Students have told me that the voice on many of these clips sounds like Siri.) A test to gauge English language ability should excite students or at least not put them to sleep. Humans demonstrate our full capabilities when we’re interested and engaged. This is especially true for those with ADHD, about 6 to 16 percent of all school-aged students. Making the test more engaging would benefit all students, and it could help students with this particular learning disability not to end up as long-term ELLs. Video clips about science experiments and inspiring historical figures, language-rich games (the online game Prodigy is an example), and the option to choose from multiple fonts and colors when typing could make the test fun or at least less onerous. Those with dyslexia—roughly one in five people—could even choose from an array of dyslexia-friendly font options. I see the potential for a test that children want to miss class to take instead of something that fills them with stress or boredom.
Even if there are improvements to ACCESS, more states need an appeals process. One test score will never convey a student’s abilities as accurately as months’ worth of data from educators. It is teachers who know which students will start drawing on their desks because they can’t sit still for the ACCESS writing test. It is teachers who know which students use the unlimited time allowance for ACCESS and slowly, determinedly struggle through every question. It is teachers who know which students write one-word answers about articles that don’t interest them but can write engaging compound sentences about topics that they love, like snakes or anime. Teachers know that students who may seldom raise their hands, if grouped with certain peers, will open up, speaking fluently and easily. It all boils down to trust in teachers.