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Advocates want families to know: Colorado children don’t have to take in-person English proficiency tests

Close up of a hand on a computer mouse next to a keyboard.
Colorado’s testing window for the annual English proficiency test opened Monday.
Lex Photography/Pexels

Among the tough choices facing families amid the pandemic, parents of English learners face an added decision: whether to have their children tested for English proficiency.

The testing window for this school year opened Monday.

The test helps schools decide appropriate classes for students based on their English proficiency. But testing, which involves speaking and listening on shared equipment, must be done in person.

Colorado asks districts to make a “good-faith effort” to test students. Advocates last month had asked the state to cancel the test, or communicate to parents that they could opt out.

The state created letters and fact sheets for districts to share with families, but the test is going forward — and advocates are worried families won’t know their rights. They’ve created public service announcements to make it crystal clear that families can opt out.

“If you fear for your family’s health, it is not required that you take your children to school to take the test since this year the ACCESS test is voluntary,” Lucinda Soltero-Gonzalez tells families in a Spanish public service announcement airing on local Spanish-language radio and television.

The ACCESS test is an annual test given to students who are learning English as a second language. It measures a student’s English proficiency, and is used to inform decisions about placement for English services.

A fact sheet from the state education department notes that, “Negative consequences on students or families will not be imposed if children do not participate in the ACCESS tests.”

“The messaging is ambiguous,” said Soltero-Gonzalez, an assistant professor for the University of Colorado Denver, and a board member of Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “All parents have the right to decide not to send their child or have the right to opt out of the test if they fear that taking the test would impose a higher risk of contracting the virus.”

In Colorado, the virus has disproportionately hit the Hispanic population, which makes up the largest portion of English learners.

Districts still feel the pressure to try to test students.

A spokesperson for Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district which serves about 30,000 English learners, said students who are learning in person are expected to take the test. A survey sent out last week, the spokesperson said, asks parents of children who are learning remotely to decide if they want their child to come in to get tested.

The district did not clarify if students who are slated to be in person would have an opportunity to opt out of the English proficiency test.

The Denver district operates under a consent decree that orders it to better serve English learners. Chris Nelson, a court-appointed monitor overseeing the district’s compliance, also wrote a letter to the district in December recommending that it not require English learners to take the ACCESS test because of the potential added exposure to COVID.

Canceling the test or putting it off until next year “will not be considered as noncompliance by the district with the Consent Decree,” by him, the plaintiffs in the case, or the Department of Justice, Nelson wrote.

Nelson’s position is notable because in normal circumstances, administering the test would be a key part of ensuring students get the services they are entitled to under the law.

Nelson’s letter describes the work the district plans, plus more it would need to do, to meet the state’s expectations to test students, such as setting up barriers, laminating materials to wipe down between uses, scheduling all four test parts in one day, and finding places to administer the test for students who aren’t already in person. He described the work as “daunting.”

“One major concern that arose,” Nelson wrote, “is the amount of instructional time that would be lost to testing.”

The test involves speaking into a microphone, reading, writing, and listening on a headset.

With those conditions, advocates say that even families whose students are in classrooms may still not be comfortable with their child taking the test.

Simitrio Carrazco Perez, a Boulder parent who signed on to the petition, had said that he would be less concerned if the test was administered when his school was already in person, but still worried that returning to school only to start testing might not be a good use of time.

Tania Hogan, director of undergraduate student success at University of Colorado Denver and advocacy chair for the board of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education, said that one of the most common questions the group is getting from parents who are confused about the test and their options is whether not taking a test will affect a school’s funding.

While the test is used to place students according to English proficiency, it does not identify a student as an English learner.

Schools get some additional state dollars for students who are labeled as English learners. The same group that creates the ACCESS test has modified a screener test to help identify students as requiring English services remotely, meaning ACCESS opt-outs shouldn’t affect school funding.

“We just want parents to know,” Hogan said.

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