ACT, College Board Extend Supports to English Learners

If you happen to be one of the estimated 9.3 percent of public school students who is learning English as a second language, the SAT and ACT likely pose a challenging hurdle in the college admissions process. Obscure vocabulary, complicated sentences, and subtle rhetorical devices are daunting enough for any student; even more so for students for whom English is not a first language.

While both the ACT, Inc., and the College Board have expressed a concern for improving access to college for English language learners, it was the ACT that took the first step toward accommodating the needs of ELLs. In an announcement last month, the company said that, beginning the 2017-18 school year, students who are defined as English language learners under federal law are eligible for several potentially game-changing supports.

Most important of these supports, English learners who apply through their high school counselor’s office may receive up to 50 percent extra time for the test. This extra time provides a tremendous opportunity to read more of a passage, answer more questions, and earn a higher score. Or perhaps more appropriately, it allows a student to earn the score he or she deserves without being penalized by a weaker grasp of the English language.

In addition to the extra time, an approved student will be allowed to use a word-to-word bilingual glossary. Don’t know what “exponential,” “tangential,” or “conjugate” means in English? Students can now look it up in their own language. Additionally, students receiving these supports will be able to read test instructions in their primary language (for Spanish and a limited number of other languages, for now), and will also be able to take the test in a separate room.

Not to be outdone by the ACT, the College Board announced its own plan for English language learners this month. The College Board’s plan is similar to the ACT plan. Students taking the SAT will be able to access instructions in several native languages, a word-to-word bilingual glossary, extended testing time of 50 percent, and take the test in an environment with reduced distractions. The only difference is that the College Board will only offer the ELL supports for state-funded SATs administered during the school day. The ACT supports are available for all ELL students, either during the school day or during a public Saturday administration.

English language learners will want to consider how they can use these new supports to their benefit. First, current sophomores and seniors will want to apply through their high school counselor’s office for such supports. Then, once they have been approved, students can begin preparing for the test using the extra time and glossary as well as familiarize themselves with the test’s instructions. Both the College Board and ACT offer free practice tests on their websites, and the former provides free SAT preparation through Khan Academy, a significant aid for all students, including ELLs.

Both companies are jockeying for position as the most accessible standardized test. Among other demographics, English language learners have unprecedented opportunity to earn their best score on the test and improve their options for higher education.

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