Time to Reassess Testing and Assessment for English Language Learners

Testing of English Language Learners

Think back to your days in school and the various tests and assessments that you took. There was probably everything from short quizzes during a unit, to large midterm and final exams for each subject, as well as the standardized assessments that most students take at the end of the school year. That adds up to a lot of testing.

During the last 15 years, the time spent on assessment has gone up exponentially due to policies such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Time is spent not only on the standardized assessments themselves, but also on endless hours of teachers teaching to tests and preparing students to take tests. Test preparation and testing for grades 3-11 ranged from 19 full school days in one district, to six weeks in another district, according to a 2013 American Federation of Teachers report.

Under the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), educators expect to see a decreased emphasis on high-stakes testing. Teachers and school administrators are currently hopeful that the emphasis on standardized testing will soon be reduced. Still, the strong emphasis on testing remains a large part of the lives of today’s teachers and students.

Imagine if you were living in a new country, learning a new language as you engaged in all of this ongoing testing. You might feel frustrated and confused. Would the results of your assessments be a true indicator of your strength in a given subject or of your overall aptitude?

This is the dilemma facing the large population of English Language Learners (ELLs) in our U.S. schools today. Our ELLs face an unfair and often punishing appraisal of their abilities, both in everyday tests and annual achievement testing. Students may have mastered the content being tested quite well, but are unable to demonstrate that via our current system.

Educational policy issues and assessment

The ongoing effects of NCLB have hurt the schools most likely to serve our ELLs. Under NCLB, K-12 schools that failed to make their Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals for student achievement were labeled as failing schools.

Most of these schools are in the urban areas that serve our largest ELL populations. In some states, students who attend these schools could be given vouchers to attend private schools or could be bused to other public schools that were not failing.

This solution worked best for those with resources and who were aware of such systems. Families of Ells tend to move often and are more likely to live in poverty. Naturally, their families would not have the English language skills to locate necessary information and complete applications for these alternative placements. Thus, failing schools have recently contained higher proportions of ELLs in many areas and remain on a cycle of failure under the qualifications of NCLB. Schools that remained designated as failing after a given time were closed, and the students are relocated, resulting in even more transience and a lack of stability in the lives of these students.

When considering standardized annual assessments for ELLs, the test structure itself is often an issue. There is sometimes a cultural mismatch, since most ELLs have little to no experiences with testing in this fashion. Something as simple as choosing the correct answer for a multiple choice question may actually elude some ELLs, who may be used to different types of questioning. The idea of a timed test or the high-stakes nature of test results may also clash with cultural expectations and past experiences of our ELLs.

Given the current policy issues, here are some questions that teachers may ask, in order to determine the best approach toward standardized testing:

  • What percentages of students, including ELLS, are performing at or above the standards on standardized tests?
  • What can be done to help in the areas that need more focus?
  • How can we help ELLs with flexibility in requirements, modifications to testing, etc.?
  • What resources are available to help ELLs with standardized testing?

ESSA recognizes the struggles that ELLs face and identifies the need for adjustments. However, educators and policymakers still have a long way to go in making testing and assessment fair and appropriate for our ELLs.

Formative and summative assessment in classrooms

While policymakers focus mostly on standardized achievement testing, classroom teachers will also spend a great deal of time giving both formative and summative assessments to the students in their classrooms.

  • Formative assessments are ongoing measures of progress and tend to be shorter and more informal.
  • Summative assessments typically occur at the end of a curricular unit and are longer tests that cover a large amount of knowledge.

Summative assessments are most often traditional paper-and-pencil tasks, which naturally can be difficult for ELLs who are struggling with English proficiency. The recent push toward computerized testing may help somewhat, but tests still rely on written directions and verbal skills.  Even ELLs who may have strong verbal skills in English may lag behind their peers in English reading and writing skills, due to less focus on reading and writing in their native countries or in their families and communities.

Flexibility and modifications of assessments for ELLs can make a world of difference. Teachers are most able to realistically make modifications to formative assessments given in their classrooms, due to the less formal nature of these tasks. Consider these alternates for formative assessments:

  • Oral form instead of written form
  • Checklists of observed behaviors in the classroom
  • Performance-based assessment
  • Flexible student journals

When logistics or curricular constraints force a teacher to choose traditional paper-and-pencil based tasks for assessments, spoken directions can help ELLs to stay on track and do their best work possible.

Assessments of English language proficiency

Assessments that focus on language proficiency would be helpful in identifying the appropriate course of study for ELLs:

  • IPT (IDEA Proficiency Tests) I and II: Oral Language
  • LAS (Language Assessment Scales)
  • Woodcock-Munoz Language Survey
  • BINL (Basic Inventory of Natural Language)
  • BSM (Bilingual Syntax Measure) I and II
  • SELP (Stanford English Language Proficiency) Test
  • DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills)

When selecting among these helpful assessments, teachers should not simply go with a “one test fits all” approach. Each language assessment has its own flavor and might be better for one student than another or in one situation over another. Unlike most standardized tests currently given to ELLs, the data gained from these language-specific assessments can help to guide instruction and course placement.

Some language assessments are better for various age groups. Most of them are labeled as being appropriate for grades K-12, but some are more geared toward younger learners than others. The Woodcock-Munoz Language Survey, for example, is “designed to measure cognitive aspects of language proficiency for oral language as well as reading and writing for individuals 48 months and older.” School districts should research these language assessments and consider which ones would be helpful in their specific situation.

Tips for teachers and administrators

Given the current policy issues and classroom time spent on testing, here are some tips for teachers who are concerned about assessment and ELLs:

  • Be aware of local and national policy issues regarding standardized testing
  • Speak up for the ELLs in your community and their needs
  • Seek out resources to help you administer assessments and help ELLs to succeed on assessments
  • Collaborate with colleagues in order to find successful testing strategies for ELLs
  • Put yourself in the ELL’s shoes and be as flexible as possible in modifying things such as formative assessments
  • Consider how language-specific assessments may actually be far more helpful to our ELLs than traditional standardized testing such as under NCLB

Policy issues continue to change with regard to standardized testing and the time spent on assessment in our schools. Teachers should be aware of the policy issues and the specific struggles of ELLs with regard to testing. With this knowledge, they can be a part of the solution in both their own classrooms and on the national policy level.

Dr. Maggie Broderick teaches masters and doctoral level courses in teacher education online for various universities, including Concordia University – Portland. Dr. Broderick taught K-12 in the Pittsburgh Public Schools before completing her Ph.D. in Foreign Language Education at the University of Pittsburgh. In addition to teaching, she enjoys writing, course development, and research.

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