Blog: Latino Ed Beat

ACT Will Soon Offer English-Language Learners More Time and Other Support

Students who are learning English will have access to more supports when taking the ACT exam next year, the nonprofit organization that administers the test announced this week. 

The changes, going into effect for the 2017-18 school year, will include additional time and separate locations to take the college admissions exam, test instructions in the students’ native languages and a word-to-word bilingual glossary (without definitions).

ACT Inc. CEO Marten Roorda said in an email that the supports will enable more students to demonstrate their academic abilities. He gave an example: 

Consider a quick math quiz. What is 24 divided by 6? I’m certain you know the answer: 4.

Now, “¿Qué es 24 dividido por 6?” Do you still know the answer?

Finally, what if I had asked this question first: “什麼是24除以6?” Are you still sure?

Your math skills didn’t change as I asked the questions, but the languages did. If I try enough languages, at some point your lack of fluency will override the skill being measured—your facility in math. When educational measurement is “confounded” by extraneous factors, validity is lost. Even Einstein would struggle with math problems written in languages he had never encountered.

Using the language of psychometricians, the net result is a false negative. In words we can all understand, it’s simply not fair.

As Catherine Gewertz of Education Week points out in an article, English-language learners are used to receiving some accommodations for tests that have not previously been made available to them for the SAT or ACT. 

And with more states requiring that high school juniors take one of the two college entrance exams, “that puts many students in a bind,” she writes. “Students who can’t get their typical accommodations on the college-entrance exams ended up having to make a tough choice: take the test without them and risk a lower score, or insist on the accommodations they’re used to, and accept that ACT or the College Board would not certify the resulting scores for use in college applications.”

To determine which supports it should offer English-language learners, ACT sought the council of a panel of experts from state education agencies, colleges, policy administrators, civil rights advocates, researchers and others, according to a news release.  

To qualify for the accommodations, students must meet the federal criteria of an English learner – as defined in the Every Student Succeeds Act — and apply for the supports through a high school counselor.