PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — While Providence Public School students remain in full distance learning this week, one group of students is being told to enter school buildings for the first time this academic year: English language learners enrolled in the virtual learning academy.
The 1,760 English learners (also called multilingual learners, or MLLs) who are enrolled in the city’s standalone virtual academy are being required to take the annual ACCESS test in person this week, even though the schools are otherwise remaining closed to in-person instruction as part of a post-holiday phased-in reopening plan.
The annual test mandated by the federal government measures students’ English proficiency, which determines their placement in the program or whether they are ready to exit out and join traditional classes. About one-third of Providence’s 24,000 students are multilingual learners, and those who are going to school in person will take the test later this winter.
Last year’s ACCESS results were released in December, described by R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green as “devastating.” (The 2020 test was administered prior to the pandemic.)
But the decision to have virtual learning students come into the schools to take the test this week has raised eyebrows, especially since the state extended the window to administer the test this year until March 12.
“The parents who chose VLA chose it for a reason,” said Marissa Almonte, the MLL teacher leader at Hope High School. “They were clearly worried about their children’s health.”
Almonte said she will be proctoring in-person ACCESS tests on Thursday and Friday. She said Hope is planning to have just five students per classroom for the testing.
“I’m worried that a lot of them won’t show up, and I can’t say that I blame them,” Almonte said.
Providence schools spokesperson Laura Hart said the district decided to have the virtual students come in to take the assessments this week because the buildings are empty, and it will be easier to spread students out to make it safer.
“They’re still going to be in a classroom with students that they haven’t been exposed to,” Almonte said. “We don’t know where students went” over the holidays, she added.
Holiday travel was one of the reason state leaders cited for delaying the return to in-person school after the new year, so students who traveled would have time to quarantine or monitor themselves for symptoms before going back to the classroom.
“Any families who are quarantining, whether due to health concerns, possible exposure or recent travel, have been advised to make arrangements with the school for a later testing date,” Hart said in an email.
She added that students will be screened for symptoms and have their temperatures taken upon arriving at school. The ACCESS tests, which are taken on computers, are being administered from Wednesday until Friday. Plexiglass barriers have also been installed for certain students who require one-on-one assistance with taking the test.
While state leaders have repeatedly promised parents that they would not be forced to send their children to school during the pandemic, Providence told parents signing up for the VLA over the summer that they must commit to sending their children to do standardized testing in person, if it took place.
“Your child must participate in all state and/or district mandated testing which may require going to a school building or testing center,” the original VLA information read.
Hart said WIDA, the company that provides the ACCESS test to states, has not offered a virtual option. The company’s website says administering the test remotely could affect the “validity and reliability of test scores.”
“ACCESS testing is integral to our accurate placement of those learners and helps us determine the level of services each student needs to succeed,” Hart said. “Moreover, it serves as a necessary progress monitoring tool — one mandated by the U.S. Department of Education and specifically referenced in our agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.” (Providence agreed to a settlement with the DOJ to improve MLL services following a federal investigation.)
There is still no word on whether the examination given to the majority of students — the RICAS test — will be administered this spring. The incoming Biden administration is expected to make a decision on whether to grant a waiver again this year, as the Trump administration did last spring when the pandemic first hit.
The rest of Providence’s students are learning from home this week, returning in a staggered schedule next week, starting with pre-K through 1st grade returning on Monday. All students who are not in the VLA will be back in school by Jan. 14, though middle school and high school will remain on an alternating schedule between remote and in-person school.
Providence is planning to start testing its students for COVID-19 upon arrival, with parental permission, and will offer twice-monthly COVID testing as part of the state’s new surveillance program, according to a letter that went home to parents last week.