Education Opinion

Response: Ways the “Next Generation” of Standardized Tests Should Treat ELL’s

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 01, 2011 8 min read
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Louise Oppedahl asked:

How will common core standardized assessments allow ESL students to show improvement? A beginning student in high school cannot even take a grade level test fairly even if allowed a bilingual dictionary and time and a half. The intermediate student would not fare much better. Since, in many places, 40% or more of a Teacher’s rating will be based on standardized tests, most ESL teachers will not rate well. Getting lower ratings leads to termination.

As someone who teaches at a high school where over half of the students are English Language Learners, I share Louise’s concerns. And we are not alone -- Education Week recently published a commentary titled ELL Assessment: One Size Does Not Fit All sharing similar worries.

Above all, of course, we need to be concerned about the potential negative impact these kinds of standardized tests can have on our students. One day during our school’s testing period, my ESL students reached the classroom before I did. They had just taken a standardized test in another class. One or more of them had written on the whiteboard in large letters, “We took test today and want to cry.”

A study co-authored by Richard M. Ryan, one of the world’s foremost researchers on learning and intrinsic motivation, further explains the potential harm to our students:

“External events are experienced as amotivating when they convey incompetence or helplessness. Tests that are too challenging or result in highly negative feedback tend to discourage rather than inspire further effort.”

Two groups of states, the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, or SBAC, and The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers Consortium, or PARCC, have been funded by the Department of Education to develop the next generation of tests that will be taken by all of our students -- ELL’s and non ELL’s. They both agreed to respond to Louise’s question. Since Louise voiced a concern about the impact of low ELL student scores on teacher evaluation, I’ve also included a short commentary on that issue by Matthew Di Carlo, Senior Fellow at The Shanker Institute.

I should also point out that I’m not a big fan of high-stakes testing for any student. However, I do believe that if the consortia can put their words into action about creating standardized tests that are more connected to to “performance-based assessment”, then the results could be useful in a school culture that is data-informed and not data-driven. These issues will be topics for future posts.

Response from SBAC:

Michael Hock, the Director of Educational Assessment for the Vermont Department of Education, wrote this on SBAC’s behalf:

At the moment the SMARTER Balance Assessment Consortium (SBAC) can only provide a partial answer to this question. In the next few days we will be releasing a request for proposals to conduct an extensive review of research and promising practices used in the current generation of state assessments. This information will be used by the SBAC Accessibility and Accommodations Workgroup, in collaboration with national experts on students with special assessment needs, including English Language Learners, to plan an array of accessibility options and accommodations that will be available when the new tests are implemented during the 2014-15 school year.

The following are already included in our assessment development plans:

• Translations - SBAC plans to translate its tests into 10 languages, including Spanish, American Sign Language, and the eight second languages most commonly used across the SBAC states.

• Accessibility by Design - Because the SBAC tests will be administered by computer it will be possible to design tests that will include an array of accessibility tools and technologies, a vast improvement over many of our current tests that addressed the needs of students with special assessment needs as an after thought.

• Universal Design - Test design and item development will adhere to principles of universal design including procedures to simplify language demands that are not relevant to the construct(s) being measured.

SBAC is fully committed to identifying and using the best new accessibility technologies and research-based accommodations to provide the broadest range of students with a meaningful and successful assessment experience. We welcome input and suggestions, which can be submitted by e-mail to SBAC@wested.org

It sounds to me like SBAC seems to be making an effort to support ELL’s. I’m impressed that they plan to translate the tests into ten languages. No Child Left Behind does give states the option to offer standardized tests to immigrant students during their first three years (and sometimes longer) in the United States. One major problem, however, is that so few states take advantage of that option. You can learn more information about those rules and other issues at The Best Resources On ELL’s & Standardized Tests.

Response From PARCC:

This answer was sent to me by PARCC staff and was attributed to an “educator":

The PARCC assessments will be designed to measure the full range of performance and, therefore, will provide increased information about the extent to which students who are English language learners have met the Common Core State Standards, including how their performance improves over time. To ensure that its assessments are responsive to the needs of English language learners, PARCC has established Accessibility, Accommodations, and Fairness Technical Advisory Committee, comprised of state leaders, educators and researchers that have extensive expertise with this population. PARCC will also make use of the principles of “universal design” in developing assessment tasks to ensure that extraneous factors do not impede students from demonstrating what they know and can do.

Ultimately, it is up to local, state and federal policy makers to determine exactly how PARCC assessment results are used for accountability purposes. The goal of PARCC is to measure the extent to which all students, including ELLs, are on track for, or have attained, college and career readiness.

Obviously, PARCC’s answer is short on specifics. After I received their response, I emailed them back asking if they could offer a few more details and extended the deadline by two weeks. I never heard back from them.

Andrés Henríquez from the Carnegie Corporation of New York tells me that the foundation recently granted $50,000 each to SBAC and PARCC “to form an English-language learners advisory committee to build research-based access strategies directly into the assessment development process.” Let’s hope they both use those funds wisely....

Response From Readers:

Anne Smith, an ESL teacher in Pennsylvania, writes:


teach in Pennsylvania. I’d like to see the proficiency tests (like the ACCESS) become the only standardized test for beginner and intermediate ELL’s. These students are obviously below basic and we do not need a standardized state test to tell us that. The ACCESS (while not perfect) at least will show growth and measures achievement through content-based assessment. I’ve had kids so distraught and frustrated that they have cried during our PSSA’s. It is so unfair to put a child through that!

....If my professional evaluation was affected by the NCLB testing, I would be irate. It is not good for the students and it is unfair to the teachers and districts.

Anne is referring to language proficiency tests that are given to ELL’s. Coincidentally, the organization that sponsors the ACCESS assessments was funded just a few days ago by the U.S. Department of Education to develop the “next generation” of language proficiency tests.

How Will ELL Scores Impact Teacher Evaluation?

Anne touches again on the issue of how ELL scores will impact teacher evaluation. Many districts are beginning to implement what is called a Value-Added approach to teacher evaluation (see The Best Resources For Learning About The “Value-Added” Approach Towards Teacher Evaluation).

Based on this response from Matthew Di Carlo, Senior Fellow at The Shanker Institute, whose judgement is respected by many in the education field -- including me -- it sounds like we ELL/ESL teachers don’t have to worry more than other educators. It just appears like we need to have the same high-level concern as every other teacher should have about the common misuse of the model:

Many value-added and other growth models do attempt, whether directly (e.g., using ELL status as a variable) or indirectly (e.g., using prior test scores), to account for whether students aren’t native English speakers, but it’s all a matter of degree. Their success in doing so will vary by model and context. There are also more “practical” concerns with using these estimates for teachers of this student population, such as the fact that ESL classes are often small (which means the estimates are less reliable), or the fact that ESL students are sometimes taught by different teachers in the same subject.

Overall, though, there really isn’t much research on the issues with value-added and other growth models that are specific to ESL teachers. If I had to answer the question based on the available evidence, I would say that the limitations of these models - if they are used improperly, which seems to be the case in many places - are only marginally more of a concern to ESL teachers than to other teachers.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. Next week’s question will be dealing with the issue of standardized tests in general, so you might want to hold any comments on that broader issue until then.

Thanks again to Louise for posing this week’s question, and to SMARTER, PARCC, Matthew and Anne for sharing their answers!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I’ll be posting next week’s question here on Friday, and hope readers will share their responses. Several will be included in next Wednesday’s post responding to that “question of the week.”

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.