Federal Chat

How to Assess English-Language Learners

Margo Gottlieb answers questions about what it takes to create English-language-proficiency standards and assessments and how those tools can be used to improve instruction.

How to Assess English-Language Learners

This chat took place Thursday, April 9, from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. Eastern time

Margo Gottlieb answered questions about what it takes to create English-language-proficiency standards and assessments and how those tools can be used to improve instruction.

Educators have struggled for years with how to implement assessment and accountability requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act for English-language learners. The law required states to create tests to assess ELLs’ progress in reading, writing, speaking, and listening each year, and states have also had to figure out how to include ELLs in content tests given to all students, even though the tests aren’t designed for them. Margo Gottlieb, the lead developer for the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment consortium, has helped school districts and state officials to find their way.

Featured guest:

Margo Gottlieb, director of assessment and evaluation at the Illinois Resource Center, lead developer at the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment Consortium.

How to Assess English-Language Learners(04/09/2009)


1:44 Mary Ann Zehr: Hi, everybody. We are now taking questions about how to assess English-language learners. The chat will begin in 15 minutes.


Mary Ann Zehr: Welcome. I’d like to introduce Margo Gottlieb, our panelist for today. She’s the lead developer for the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment consoritium. She’s also the director of assessment and evaluation for the Illinois Resource Center.

I’ve seen Margo give a couple of presentations about assessing ELLs at conferences. She was good at providing practical information. That’s why thought of inviting her for this chat today.

We have lots of great questions already. Let’s start with one about how to begin assessing as soon as a student arrives in a school.

2:01 [Comment From Pat Harrison]
I am particulalry interested in how classroom educators K-12 begin to assess upon student entry and if assessment for learning can be developed from a specific framework. Thanks

2:03 Margo Gottlieb: Once an ELL has been identified through state level criteria, classroom teachers need to hone in on more diagnostic information geared to their individual classrooms and curriculum....

2:03 Mary Ann Zehr: Let’s move on to a question about the WIDA test from Jill.

2:03 [Comment From Jill]
The WIDA test is extremely time-consuming – requiring 30-60 minutes per child in kindergarten. With 75 students to test in kindergarten alone, this required nearly 2 solid weeks of manpower to administer to all these children. Many tasks are repetitive with other required district testing. Are there plans to shorten the test for kindergartners considering the stamina and attention span of 5 and 6 year olds?

2:03 Margo Gottlieb: Look for the language curriculum framework we posed in a new TESOL publication!

2:05 Margo Gottlieb: WIDA is constantly using feedback from the field to improve its measures-

2:05 [Comment From Bryan Weatherford]
We have a fast-growing immigrant population from the far east in our Dallas/Fort Worth suburbs and I am often asked what assessment instruments - especially for a Comprehensive Individual Assessment - are available for those student who do not speak English or Spanish. Any ideas or websites I can visit to provide support?


Margo Gottlieb:

I assume you mean L1 assessment? You can always gather a writing sample in L1 and secure community persons to help interpret what the students say using criteria from a district or state rubric

2:07 Mary Ann Zehr: WIDA has 19 states as members. That’s a lot of educators who are using WIDA tests and materials. So it doesn’t surprise me we’re getting a lot of WIDA questions. Here’s another...

2:08 [Comment From Margy McClain]
I work in a WIDA state as an ELL teacher. I would like to develop individualized learning plans for each of our “lowest” students. WIDA offers a guide but not detailed enough information to guide how to individualize the curriculum. Our students are in “regular classrooms” with ELL services provided as pullouts & push-ins. What kind of portfolio assessments might be used to complement WIDA? Any other suggestions?

2:10 Margo Gottlieb: Portfolio entries should be standards-referenced (to both ELP and state academic standards), reflect your local curriculum and differentiated for the students’ English language proficiency levels, include required and optional pieces as well as student reflection

2:10 [Comment From Guest]
What native language assessments are large school districts using?

2:11 Margo Gottlieb: To my knowledge, there are few L1 assessments of achievement outside of Spanish....and if in Spanish, check the Technical Manual to make sure it will be valid for your students.

2:12 [Comment From Amanda]
We use the Arizona English Language Learner Assessment statewide to measure proficiency, however, our problem occurs in creating assessments that measure knowledge of content in the English language classroom when students are taught to the Language Standards. Should formative assessments measure language or content in the English Language Development classroom? and do these have to be teacher-made or are there assessments out there?

2:14 Margo Gottlieb: The language specialist should center on language teaching in collaboration with the content teachers...formative assessments could range from checklists to observation with anecdotal notes, to classroom tests to performance tasks with rubrics...there is a whole range to choose from!

2:14 Mary Ann Zehr: Here’s a new topic. Special education, brought to us by Janet.

2:14 [Comment From Janet]
What are some districts/states doing regarding ELL and sp.ed eligibility? Any standard procedures or process? I have educators looking for the elusive magic bullet.


Margo Gottlieb:

There is no standard procedure although states are providing guidance in many cases. What is needed is strong documentation and evidence in both L1 and L2 that an ELL indeed has a disability across languages.

2:17 Mary Ann Zehr: I hear a lot from teachers about their frustrations concerning delays in getting test results back. Here’s a question along those lines.

2:17 [Comment From Jennifer Randall]
I recently returned from an RtI training (Response to instruction/intervention). Fortunately, ELL students are being addressed and included in RtI frameworks and models. The current edition of Making Content Comprehensible (i.e., SIOP) likewise includes a small mention of RtI models in the last chapter. My question for you is: what kind of progress monitoring assessments are there for ELL students? The annual assessments provide summative data, however the delay in receiving results, not to mention the long summer break make using the data from these assessments problematic for instructional guidance. Suggestions?

2:19 Mary Ann Zehr: While I’m waiting, I’ll add a reader’s comment.

2:19 [Comment From Terry McLean]
To piggy back on Janet’s idea, when is it language and when is it learning disability? It is possible that this inability to discern the difference holds our learners under the ELL label.


Margo Gottlieb:

There needs to be progress monitoring in English language development, but teachers can’t expect change at the same pace as the acquisition of discrete skills and knowledge on the content side....I would ge t together with teachers to design common or standard assessments or minimally, a common set of language rubrics to use, interpret and report data.


Mary Ann Zehr: That was a response to Jennifer’s question, of course.

Margo, would you like to say anything more about assessing whether students have a language barrier or learning disability? This is a hot topic right now.


Margo Gottlieb:

There is no clearcut answer... make sure that their language, culture, and background experiences have been considered in making any decision re: the fate of ELLs

2:21 [Comment From Jeffrey Palen]
Hi Margo, I am interested in finding more information about modifying/accommodating standards-based reporting for ELL’s who are Entering or Beginning according to WIDA levels. Do you have any suggestions as far as how we should report student progress at these initial stages, and transition them from a language-geared progress report to the district-created report card?


Margo Gottlieb:

The reporting should be standards-based, perhaps according to the language domains L, S, R, W and combined domains, such as oral language, literacy and comprehension....in relation to performance in the content areas....consider weighting grades according to proficieny level.

2:24 Mary Ann Zehr: I’ll add another comment in here from a reader that goes back to the discussion about special education.

2:24 [Comment From Dr. Patrick Molloy]
I would strongly recommend that Special Education professionals consider differentiating between students with Learning Problems and students with Learning Disabilities. Over the years it has certainly become clear to me that the majority of ELL student’s who are identified as having a Learning Disability - are in FACT students with Learning Problems - and DO NOT HAVE A DISABILITY. Regardless of the length of their exposure to the English language - more often than not it is a problem not a disability.

2:25 Mary Ann Zehr: And here’s yet another comment on the topic.

2:25 [Comment From Denise Fennel]
I’d like to respond to the question of ELL vs SPED. Many of our ELL students are inappropriately referred to special ed when in fact their is just a delay in their language aquisition. Many times this mistake is made and our students are labeled forever.

2:26 Margo Gottlieb: I would recommend professional development teams of LD teachers, ELL teachers, and general ed teachers to become wel,l versed in L2 development and have opportunities to problem solve.

2:26 Mary Ann Zehr: Let’s hear a comment and question from our Canadian naeighbors.

2:28 Mary Ann Zehr: Ok, that comment was lost in cyberspace, it seems. I’ll try to retrieve it before the end!!

2:29 Mary Ann Zehr: On to benchmark assessments...

2:29 [Comment From Lori]
Hi. I’m wondering if you have any recommendations for benchmark assessments that measure language acquisition. Is there such a thing?

2:30 Margo Gottlieb: I personally do not know of any outside the one that I have worked on, the ELL Assessment Kit, for grades K-5 (Rigby, 2007)...

2:31 Mary Ann Zehr: The buzz word in the curriculum world these days is “21st century skills.” Here we have the term show up in a question. What skills do ELLs need in the 21st century?

2:31 [Comment From Leslie Morris]
What are some implications for ELLs for 21 century learning?

2:32 Margo Gottlieb: ELLs are our future and must be exposed to 21st century learning...especially the world of technology...but as all instruction and assessment, language differentiation must be considered

2:33 Mary Ann Zehr: Margo, could you take a moment here to reflect on where states have come since passage of No Child Left Behind in terms of test. Are they making progress? Is all this testing of ELLs worthwhile? How would you answer this quetions from Barry?

2:33 [Comment From Barry]
Do we really want to continue being held hostage by the test writing companies at the expense of actually “teaching” our nation’s students?

2:36 Margo Gottlieb: NCLB has some positive aspects- including the recognition of ELLs! in standards-based education, the criterion should be the standards as the pathways to success, not the test- that should only validate what you already know as a teacher

2:37 Mary Ann Zehr: And do you think the new tests--let’s say the English-language-proficiency tests--are an improvement over the ones used prior to passage of NCLB?

2:39 Margo Gottlieb: There is improvement as language teachers join forces with classroom teachers to understand that academic language, that undergirds these new measures, is the heart of teaching and learning for ELLs.

2:40 Mary Ann Zehr: And let’s talk a bit about inclusion of ELLs in state’s regular academic content tests. Are states getting better at creating tests that are appropriate for ELLs? Or is still a huge challenge?

2:42 Margo Gottlieb: It continues to be a huge challenge as, for ELLs, content tests are in essence language tests until they reach a threshold of English language proficiency when, in fact, they may benefit from accommodations...otherwise, their language masks or confounds their content knowledge in English

2:43 Mary Ann Zehr: Ok, we’ve talked a bit about the big picture. Here’s a question about assessment at the classroom level.

2:43 [Comment From Marianne]
What about everyday assessment in the classroom? How can a teacher tailor the assessment to the ELL students?

2:45 Margo Gottlieb: Teachers must create language and content objectives on which to base their assessment....while the performance=based activity may be the same for students, the language is differentiaged to meet individual student needs...one idea..if you use visual or graphic support in instruction, make sure students use it for assessment.

2:45 Mary Ann Zehr: Margo, do you have any insight into what’s going on with policy for ELLs and assessment inside the Obama adminstration. Please tell us all.

2:45 [Comment From Dina/Jodi/Erin-RIteachers]
What is the US Education Dept./Arne Duncan putting together to access students’ levels of proficiency beyond the ACCESS test? Is there a task force? opportunities to get involved?

2:47 Margo Gottlieb: Just because I hail from the state of IL doesn’t mean I have an inside track! I don’t know of any tasks forces that have been formed...I serve on the national TAC, but don’t know if we’ll be moving forward...


Mary Ann Zehr: Or course, I had to ask you that question. I’m not hearing a word these days about the Obama administration’s priorities for ELLs.

Now on to another comment from a reader--and a question.

2:50 [Comment From Guest]
Comment: Before we decry the validity of assessments for ELLs, educators need to assess whether they have done everything possible to accelerate the development of language for ELLs. E.g. How rich is the curricula? Is adequate time allotted? How do they student progress in acquiring English? How do we intervene for those not making projected progress?To what extend have schools utilized technology to accelerate the learning of English language?

2:52 Margo Gottlieb: I agree, we must collect evidence from various and varied sources in order to make sound decisions.

2:52 [Comment From cheryl]
what is WIDA, I am relatively new to the profession

2:54 Margo Gottlieb: WIDA is an acronym for World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment Consortium....a group of states with common goals, standards and assessments for English language learners...you are welcome to look at the website, www.wida.us

2:54 Mary Ann Zehr: And I found the question again from our neighbors from Canada. Let’s hope this works this time. If not, I give up.

2:54 [Comment From Pat Harrison]
I am sitting with a fellow colleague and it is great to have this opportunity. We are from Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada, and its great to chat with other educators from the US. We have the similar issues. Our school district discourages the use of standardized assessments, which is fine, but is there a template or format we could follow to do initial programming assessments for our ELL learners?

2:55 Mary Ann Zehr: And while Margo is answering that, I’ll post a comment here.

2:55 [Comment From Julie Esparza Brown]
There was a comment a while back about RTI and ELL Students. I co-authored a Practitioner’s Brief that is posted for download at the National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational System’s website (nccrest.org) that people may find helpful.

2:56 Mary Ann Zehr: and another comment:

2:56 [Comment From Sarah Carter]
In elementary schools, teachers are afraid that if they weigh the grades for low proficiency ELLs, that some how their report card is not reporting their grade level proficiency, or a true reflection of what grade level they are at. (Comment to Margo’s sugestion)

2:56 Margo Gottlieb: Hard to write in a sentence or two...your district needs to define a set of procedures, attach criteria, and interpret the information gathered in the same way...reaching consensus on what information is most useful, is the place to start...

2:57 Mary Ann Zehr: That was a response to Pat, from Canada.

2:58 Margo Gottlieb: Not at all...all ELLs have to be exposed to grade level content...their ability to access that content, however, is contingent on their ELP level...so their language proficiency should be used to mediate or contextualize their achievement (providing that instruction is only in English)

2:59 [Comment From Merrily]
Do you have any suggestions for making resistant administrators and staff more supportive of the ELLs and their teachers?

2:59 Mary Ann Zehr: This will be the last question by the way.

3:01 Margo Gottlieb: involve administrators and staff in the lives of ELLs and bring insight through professional development....get involved in committees so that your voice can be heard....use Professional Learning Communities to address ELL books and literature!

3:01 [Comment From Susan]
Thanks for this opportunity.

3:02 [Comment From Jane]
Just a comment---great facilitating, Mary Ann! And I am very happy to be able to be in touch with Margo in this way. This has been a really well done talk. I have to leave now, hope that I can find a transcript somewhere that I can review. Thanks again for the informative hour!

3:02 Margo Gottlieb: I wish I was a faster typist and thinker...it’s been a pleasure! margo


Mary Ann Zehr: This has been a really wonderful discussion. I’m learned about some questions that educators have that I’d like to explore more in my reporting. I thank Margo for answering questions so concretely.

Margo, by the way, has written extensively about assessing ELLs. Recently, she co-authored a book, Assessment and Accountability in Language Education Programs: A Guide for Administrators and Teachers.

I thank her for joining us today. I thank all of you for your participation.


3:03 Web Person: Jeanne McCann: A transcript will be available in about 10 seconds. Stand by....


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