It has been two years since many New York City students learning English as a new language have taken state exams to gauge their fluency and determine what services they need to succeed.
This fall, the state will allow schools to give some of the nearly 140,000 English learners in city public schools an exam to see exactly where they stand.
In a May 27 memo sent to districts, state officials wrote that schools would have the option to give some students the New York State Identification Test for English Language Learners, or NYSITELL, in August and September. Normally, this exam is only given once to students — when they are new to the school system and speak a language other than English at home. The test determines if a child fits the definition of a new learner of English, and it helps map out what services they must receive in school, such as one-on-one support.
This fall, schools can give the NYSITELL to students learning remotely in the spring and didn’t take the annual New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test, or the NYSESLAT. In contrast to the NYSITELL, a one-time exam, NYSESLAT is administered every year to see how students’ language proficiency has changed and whether their services need to be updated.
This year, the annual NYSESLAT was required only for students who attended in person, meaning some English learners have gone two school years without any official updates to what language services the school system must provide. (About 60% of all New York City students are currently learning from home full time, though the city has yet to release figures about how many English learners are learning from school buildings.)
The New York City Department of Education will allow schools to give the NYSITELL to English learners who did not take the state exam, or the NYSESLAT, said Sarah Casasnovas, a spokesperson for the department. City guidance over how the test, which includes multiple-choice, written, and oral response sections, will be administered and whether all schools will be required to give this test is “forthcoming,” Casasnovas said.
In their memo, state officials wrote that it is necessary to give school districts this testing option so they can “determine these students’ current English Language Proficiency (ELP) level.”
Many advocates have reported that remote learning has had a disproportionate impact on English language learners and their parents because of communication barriers with schools and unreliable technology, such as spotty internet. One analysis by Advocates of Children found that in January of this year, English language learners in high school had attendance rates that were, on average, eight percentage points lower than their native English-speaking peers. (Attendance this year could have meant anything from showing up on Zoom to answering a teacher’s phone call.)
Children who took the annual state exam for English learners, or the NYSESLAT, cannot be given the NYSITELL in the fall, the memo said. City and state officials did not have final numbers for how many children took the state exam this year because it is still being administered through Wednesday.
Monica Baker, president of New York State Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, said there’s “no perfect” way to determine where these students stand after two tumultuous school years, but giving them the NYSITELL again could help schools decide what services their students need. Baker’s organization informally surveyed teachers across the state about administering the annual NYSESLAT. Half of the respondents found it necessary this year, while the other half said it remains an inappropriate time to test children given the disruptions.
“For kids who have been remote for a year and a half now, it’s still gonna be quite a transition to come into the building and kick the year off by taking the NYSITELL, but I do think at this point it’s better than nothing,” Baker said.
The NYSITELL exam will still be required next year for new enrollees and students who enrolled in schools during the pandemic. Both the NYSITELL and the annual exam, like other state assessments, were not required for students who chose to learn from home this year.
Eleni Filippatos, who teaches English as a new language at a Washington Heights elementary school, said the NYSITELL will be a “good replacement” for those who didn’t take the state exam this year, or about half of the English learners at her school. While she thinks these exams can be confusing and don’t perfectly capture a student’s language proficiency, she is concerned about children who have gone multiple years without an updated plan for services.
“For example, third graders next year — their most recent level of language proficiency that I’ll have if they were remote was from the NYSITELL in kindergarten, so it could have been three years ago at that point, so I think [this test] is necessary,” Filippatos said.
But she’s unsure about how manageable it will be for schools to administer it. If it’s required at all schools, they’ll be responsible for giving the test to new children, such as kindergartners or new arrivals, who would normally take the exam, as well as the students who would be eligible for the test under the new state guidance.
“It will definitely be more students than we are used to,” Filippatos said.