Dual Language Learners Reader Post #6: Tests for DLL/ELLs

Seeing as this post deals with testing, it seems apt to write it as a series of questions about the who, what, when, why, and how of dual language learner (DLL) and English language learner (ELL) assessment (for clarification on the use of these terms click here). But don’t worry; there is no quiz at the end.

Please note: this post deals with large-scale, standardized measures of assessment, however, teachers engage in small-scale, non-standardized assessments on a regular basis in their classrooms. While these ongoing measures are essential for instruction and progress monitoring, from a policy perspective, they are more difficult to capture (and influence) for large-scale data purposes and therefore not addressed here. For more information, see these pieces on formative and informal assessments.

Who is assessed?

Testing is ubiquitous in U.S. schools. At one point or another, every student, ELL or not, will be tested. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) requires that states test students annually in Reading and Math in grades 3-8 and once in grades 10–12. States must also periodically test children in science.

Prior to NCLB, ELLs were often left out of standardized testing for fear that their language skills might mask their content knowledge. While this made for a less stressful teaching and learning environment, there was also little accountability for ELLs’ growth. NCLB’s requirement that schools assess ELLs’ progress and report out the results has shed light on this underserved population. However, these benefits have come as a result of unprecedented rates of ELL testing, and have been attached to extraordinary expectations — for instance, the law’s insistence that students who are not yet proficient in English obtain proficient scores on content tests in English. 

When are ELLs assessed?

Students designated as ELLs are not required to take state English language arts tests during their first 12 months in a U.S. school. This serves to momentarily take the pressure of off some ELLs (and to help teachers prioritize their acclimation to U.S. schools and the acquisition of basic English), however, this may not be long enough. As discussed in Post Four of the DLL Reader, it can take ELLs as many as seven years to acquire the academic proficiency that is necessary to complete standardized assessments.

Many assessments include accommodations for ELLs (e.g. these for the Smarter Balanced assessments), but they are rife with complications. Take the use of bilingual dictionaries: In order for this to be helpful, a student needs to know both how to read and understand the meaning of a given word in their home language when they look up the translation. Since most ELLs are educated in monolingual English classrooms, they may not be familiar with content-specific words in their home language, which could render a bilingual dictionary useless. Some tests also allow for translation to Spanish, however this is not beneficial for the 25 percent of ELLs who are non-Spanish speakers.

How are tests designed?

Many of the standardized assessments used in U.S. schools are less accurate at measuring ELLs’ language and content knowledge than they are for non-ELLs. This is often because tests are not normed on a representative sample of ELLs and therefore inadequately consider ELLs’ unique linguistic abilities and cultural knowledge. For instance, an early literacy test in English might assess a child’s ability to form, decode, and deconstruct compound words (e.g. “baseball,” “sandbox,” or “starfish”). While common in English, compound words are rare in Spanish — the most common home language of ELLs. If a test that included these items were normed on a sample of ELLs, they might demonstrate less familiarity with the concept and test developers could insert a small explanation of the construct into their instructions.

In addition, ELLs’ test scores may also be less accurate because items that are designed to assess content knowledge require a level of English that some ELLs have not yet acquired. Therefore, the test becomes an assessment of their language abilities rather than what they know about the given topic. Theoretically, testing accommodations should provide enough linguistic support to mitigate their emergent English abilities, but — as described above — that is often not the case.

Many standardized tests are often culturally inappropriate for ELLs and may contain references to topics, events, or ideas that ELLs have not yet been exposed to. For example, a writing prompt may ask that a test taker take a stance on the necessity of the NASA space program. If an ELL is not familiar with NASA or comes from a country without a space program, they may not have enough background knowledge to write a substantial essay.

What is done with test data?

Not only are ELLs required to take tests that are not designed with them in mind, but data from these tests are often used to draw conclusions about the group’s achievement. These data are often used to compare ELL students with ELLs in other states and non-ELLs alike. These comparisons are problematic. First, not only are ELLs linguistically distinct from non-ELLs, but they often have substantial life factors — such as living in low income households and parents with limited education — that can impact their achievement. Moreover, states define which students remain ELLs by means of their unique-to-each-state reclassification policies

Why is there an achievement gap?

Often discussions about student outcomes refer to an achievement gap between ELLs and non-ELLs. This gap can be attributed to the deficit-oriented nature of the ELL designation. Specifically, an ELL is someone who is in the process of gaining proficiency in English and therefore lacks an essential skill required for most assessments. Additionally, the difference in outcomes between ELLs and non-ELLs is also explained by the revolving door of ELL classification: at the same time that some ELLs obtain English proficiency and are reclassified as former ELLs, new ELLs with limited English proficiency enter into the ELL subgroup. Therefore the group is constantly changing yet continually defined by students who are still learning English. This creates the illusion of ELLs as persistent underachievers when compared to non-ELLs.

One solution to this conundrum would be to classify students within a “total English learners” (TELs) subgroup rather than an ELL subgroup. Not only does this recognize this group’s linguistic strengths, it also keeps children in the subgroup even after they have achieved English proficiency. While there would always be new ELLs who are limited in English entering the group, there would also be English-fluent ELLs who may be successfully drawing from multiple languages while taking achievement tests. Ideally, keeping former ELLs in the subgroup may better demonstrate the population’s growth and achievement over time.

Stay tuned for next week’s DLL Reader post on the legal basis for DLL policy. 

(Special thanks to Christine Hardigree (@cnhardigree) for her consultation on this post.)


This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team’s work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter, click here, enter contact information, and select “Education Policy.”

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]