Linda Stimpson, an ELL teacher at Lyseth Elementary School, works with a student last May. Portland’s superintendent has decided that because of the pandemic, a federally required ELL proficiency test will not be administered in the Portland school district this year. The Westbrook and South Portland school districts are also bowing out of the exam. Brianna Soukup / Portland Press Herald

PORTLAND — Superintendents in Portland, South Portland and Westbrook are opting to forgo a federally required annual English Language Learner proficiency test in their districts this year because of the pandemic, while Brunswick is opting to do the testing for most of its ELL students.

The test will not be given in the school districts in Portland, South Portland and Westbrook because of the logistics required to safely administer it in person with social distancing in place, the amount of time it takes to prepare for it and the impact it would have on instruction time, they said. Portland and Westbrook superintendents have applied to the U.S. Department of Education for a testing waiver, but both said they’ll accept any consequence of not meeting the testing mandate if their waivers are denied.

The Assessing Comprehension and Communication in English State-to-State for English Language Learners, or ACCESS, test takes more than four hours to complete. It is required for all English learners in public schools nationwide to assess their language comprehension in reading, writing, speaking and listening, as well as in content areas such as math and science. The test results are used by districts to plan English language instruction, but the superintendents said other assessments can be used this year for planning.

Portland has 1,052 English Language Learners in the district and Superintendent Xavier Botana said the test requires 4,500 hours of staff time, plus more time for test planning and preparation.

“It requires a lot of in-person direct support this year at a time when actually many of our students are remote and therefore would need to come in for something that they specifically said they did not feel safe doing,” Botana said.

In South Portland, Superintendent Ken Kunin said he and the district’s ELL coordinator, Sheanna Zimmerman, agreed that administering the test to the district’s 420 ELL students during the pandemic would take too much instruction time and require considerably more manpower than in a typical year.

“Right now, we think it’s neither safe nor feasible,” Kunin said.

In Brunswick, Superintendent Phil Potenziano said the district will administer testing for its 44 ELL students who are doing partial in-person classes right now. The remaining 15 ELL students who have opted for full remote learning during the pandemic, he said, will not be tested.

“We believe this is an equity issue, and we do not feel as though we should force remote ELL learners to come to school to take the test,” he said.

The district has already begun testing at Kate Furbish Elementary and Harriet Beecher Stowe Schools. Potenziano said he is waiting to start testing at Brunswick High School and Brunswick Junior High School until the school board decides whether to increase student in-person learning, which would make ELL testing easier.

The district has 3 ELL teachers, plus one coordinator. Potenziano acknowledged that organizing testing with a partial remote-learning schedule is a challenge for his staff. But he said it’s a manageable one with Brunswick’s smaller volume of students, compared to larger districts such as Portland, South Portland and Westbrook.

“They have a significantly larger number of ELL people,” he said. “For a district like Brunswick, we think we can do it.”

Westbrook Superintendent Peter Lancia said the time needed for test preparation would come at a cost for his district’s 442 ELL students.

“The time we have with kids in person is more important than ever right now,” he said. 

“Our real opposition isn’t to the testing itself, it’s a quality test and necessary, but our opposition is we cannot functionally do it in a safe way and an ethical way,” Lancia said. “We have 100 kids who are fully remote, and to have them come in to take the test, it doesn’t sit well with us.’

Lancia said “there is no way” the test could be given remotely. 

Botana and Lancia are hoping to get a waiver from the federal Department of Education.

In a September letter to the Maine Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Education indicated waivers will not be issued in 2021 as they were in 2020 for some year-end assessments.

Lancia is hopeful the new administration in Washington will have a different take on the waiver requests.

It is unclear what the ramifications would be if the tests were not administered. Kunin said he’s focusing on the needs of his district and not worrying about the consequences from the state or federal government for his decision.

“We hope that as this all plays out, it will not be an issue,” he said.

Botana said Portland will still track ELL student progress, although not through ACCESS testing.

“Our staff will still be tracking their progress with classroom-based and other assessments and we will be able to determine whether they are making progress or not,” he said. “Those assessments will actually be better for instructional purposes than the ACCESS, which we would administer this spring and not get results back until sometime in the summer.”

Westbrook, Lancia said, is researching whether another standardized test could be used in the absence of ACCESS.

Zimmerman said ELL teachers test their students, just like any other teacher. The South Portland district may be able to use the results of those tests to stand in for data that the ACCESS testing would normally collect.

“We’re trying to think creative about ways to record that, just for this year,” she said.

Staff Writers Sean Murphy and Chance Viles contributed to this story.

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