New ACT Accommodations for English Learners: A Closer Look

When I was an undergraduate student in Memphis, Tennessee, I volunteered at an organization called the Refugee Empowerment Program (REP). Many of the refugee high school students at REP wanted to go to college, but they lacked the ACT scores necessary to attend the schools they desired. This was largely due to the short amount of time they were afforded to learn academic English since their resettlement in the U.S. Despite numerous calls made to the ACT inquiring about accommodations for English Learners (ELs), I was unable to get these students the systematic support they needed. I eventually settled on tutoring them using a prep book that some fellow volunteers and I had designed specifically for EL students, but the lack of accommodations available for this clearly marginalized group always left me unsettled.

Then, in November 2016, the ACT signaled a major shift in the organization’s testing accommodations policy. The organization announced that they would provide accommodations for English Learners for the first time ever. These accommodations include up to 50 percent more time on the test, the use of a bilingual glossary of terms, and test instructions in the student’s native language. This news likely comes as a relief to many students, particularly those in states where the ACT is the mandatory high school exam to fulfill federal requirements. (Note: College Board announced similar accommodations for ELs taking the SAT around the same time.)

Prior to these changes, which will take effect in the fall of 2017, EL students who received district accommodations during a state-mandated ACT had a difficult choice to make:

  1. Take the ACT with district accommodations (unapproved by the ACT) and receive a score that is not “college-reportable.”

  2. Take the test without accommodations and receive a college-reportable score that will likely not accurately reflect your level of understanding.

  3. Opt out of the exam entirely.

If the ACT successfully reconciles testing accommodations for ELs with those provided by the states/districts, fewer students will have to make this kind of decision.

But even with these new measures in place, there are certain qualifications that a student must meet in order to receive accommodations—qualifications that students with disabilities have had trouble navigating in the past. In order for EL students to receive the new ACT accommodations, they must provide proof that they receive language-based accommodations in school, as well as provide proof of their English proficiency levels. In other words, they must prove that they are enrolled as ELs in their school, as classified by their state, and that their English skills would sufficiently interfere with their ACT performance.

But how do states classify English Learners? To be compliant with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states must standardize criteria for classifying English Learners. They do this by annually administering English language proficiency (ELP) exams, which determine whether a student requires EL services. But EL classification and reclassification methods differ greatly by state, creating a confusing landscape of comparability in EL programs. These differences could also potentially affect future ACT scores if accommodation requests are not granted consistently.

Let’s use Tennessee as an example. Tennessee is, along with 34 other states, a member of the WIDA consortium, which administers the ACCESS 2.0 assessment as each member state’s ELP exam. The remaining states use their own ELP exam or are members of the ELPA21 consortium. The tests yield a composite score of students’ abilities in the four language domains of reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

The fact that the ELP exams used to classify EL students are not the same in each state raises immediate questions of consistency. Furthermore, even among states using the same assessment, there is no consistency in the scores used to identify students as ELs and reclassify them once it is determined that EL programs are no longer needed. Some states only take into account the composite score of the ELPA, others use the composite score along with another domain score within that assessment, and others add even more criteria.

So a student who faces more stringent requirements in exiting EL status in states such as Minnesota would be more likely to receive these new ACT accommodations than a student in Kentucky, where the reclassification threshold is lower. According to Tennessee’s state ESSA plan, students receiving a composite score of less than a 5.0 (out of 6) on the WIDA assessment are classified as ELs. To exit EL status, students in Tennessee must receive a 5.0 on the composite WIDA assessment, as well as a 5.0 in the literacy domain (reading and writing) of the same test (see page 67 of the ESSA state plan).

The implication for reaching this reclassification threshold is that a student receiving 5.0 for composite and literacy scores on the assessment would no longer be classified as an EL and would, therefore, be ineligible to receive the ACT accommodations mentioned earlier.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. If an EL student has grown and acquired proficiency in the English language, that’s an incredible feat. It’s possible they might not legitimately need accommodations. The problem arises when we consider state differences in reclassification, some of which may be questionable. As of 2014, some states’ exit scores for the ACCESS assessment were as low as a 4.0 composite score, while others were a perfect 6.0. With this kind of range, it’s easy to imagine multiple unfortunate scenarios. One involves an EL student who is prematurely reclassified and cannot keep up with his academic work without EL services. Another involves an EL student who is kept in EL services so long that it starts to become detrimental to her academic growth. All this to say that there is no magic threshold for determining when a student no longer requires EL services, and the wide variation just adds to the discrepancies in services across states.

But with the release of several state ESSA plans comes a potential incentive for states to get EL reclassification right. Multiple states, including Tennessee, have already adopted the ACT or SAT as their college- and career-readiness accountability test, and more are likely to follow suit. Because ESSA requires state report cards to be disaggregated by student group to ensure progress in all accountability measures for each group, states that use the ACT as a federal accountability assessment must report the scores of EL students separately. Hopefully these states realize the importance of EL programs to their college- and career- readiness scores, which can be affected by the accommodations available to their ELs based on the state’s classification methods.

There are still many potential roadblocks to EL students receiving the accommodations they need on the ACT, and it is still early to tell how effective these new measures will be. But, nonetheless, the change represents a step in the right direction for equitable testing and college-entrance practices, so mark this former ACT tutor for EL students down as being “cautiously optimistic.”


Tony Hanna was a Summer 2017 intern with the Education Policy program's Dual Language Learners National Work Group.