English learners to get extra support on ACT

A computer-based practice ACT English test is displayed on a computer monitor in 2015.
A computer-based practice ACT English test is displayed on a computer monitor in 2015. File photo

Students who are not native English speakers will get additional support on the ACT college entrance exam starting next fall, the exam organization announced Monday.

The goal is “to help ensure that the ACT scores earned by English learners accurately reflect what they have learned in school,” according to a news release from Iowa-based ACT, a nonprofit group.

The support measures will begin during the 2017-18 school year and will be limited to students enrolled in school district programs who meet the definition of an English learner under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Support for qualified students will include:

▪ Additional time on the test (not to exceed time-and-a-half)

▪ Use of an approved word-to-word bilingual glossary (containing no word definitions)

▪ Test instructions provided in the student’s native language (including Spanish and a limited number of other languages initially)

▪ Testing in a nondistracting environment, such as a separate room

Suzana Delanghe, chief commercial officer for the ACT, said the changes are aimed at “leveling the playing field while not giving students any special advantages.”

“This change is about improving access and equity for students whose proficiency in English might prevent them from truly demonstrating the skills and knowledge they have learned,” Delanghe said in the news release.

In Wichita, the state’s largest school district, about 19.5 percent of students are enrolled in English for Speakers of Other Languages programs.

According to district officials, the number of English learners continues to rise, going from 9,080 students in 2013 to nearly 9,900 this year.

According to the new ESSA law, which replaced No Child Left Behind, an “English learner” is a student who was not born in the United States or whose native language is a language other than English. The student also could “come from an environment where a language other than English is dominant.”

Stephanie Bird-Hutchison, a teaching specialist for multilingual education services in Wichita, said other tests, including Kansas state assessments, have made accommodations for English learners for several years. Such adjustments – particularly additional time – help level the playing field for students learning English, she said.

“If you’re not yet dominant in English, you may have excellent academic knowledge, but just going back and forth mentally between two languages takes a little more time,” Bird-Hutchison said.

“They’re not able to show what they know because they don’t have the time to process as those of us who are native English speakers would.”

Nationwide, nearly 4.5 million students in kindergarten through 12th grade are English language learners.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the languages English learners are most likely to speak at home are Spanish, Arabic and Chinese.

In Wichita this year, for the first time, the overall number of Hispanic students in schools surpassed the number of non-Hispanic white students. The district’s overall student body is 34 percent Hispanic, 33 percent white, 19 percent African-American, 8 percent multiracial, 4 percent Asian and 1 percent Native American.

Ken Jantz, executive director of multilingual education services, said about 13,533 Wichita students – about 27 percent of the district’s total enrollment – speak predominantly Spanish at home.

A growing number of refugee families in Wichita has shifted school demographics even more. Over the past two years, the number of Wichita students who speak Arabic and Swahili has risen dramatically.

After Spanish, the most common languages spoken at home by Wichita students are Vietnamese, Arabic, Swahili and Cambodian, Jantz said.

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias