AERA: Graphic Test Questions Help ELLs Translate Math

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 11, 2011 2 min read
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Math may be considered a universal language, but linguistic difficulties still often hamstring English-language learners’ ability to demonstrate what they know on standardized assessments. A new study from the University of Georgia, presented at the American Educational Research Association conference here in New Orleans, suggests that including appropriate graphics with test questions can help English-language learners translate their math skills, even when there are no other accommodations available.

Albert M. Jimenez, researcher in evaluation measurement and statistics at the University of Georgia and a former math teacher, partnered with a large suburban school district in the South to evaluate test items for the district’s standardized interim assessments for grades 3-8. About 400 of the district’s nearly 3,000 students in those grades are ELLs.

Mr. Jimenez studied student performance item by item on nine math exams across the grades. He found that out of 270 test questions, only 70 included a useful graphic. The graphic might be a rectangle labeled with measurements for a question asking for the area of a swimming pool, for example. The other questions either had no graphic at all or a graphic that had nothing to do with the question; for instance, a word problem on golf accompanied by a picture of a golf ball.

Most standardized tests allow ELLs to use accommodations such as reading the questions aloud or using a bilingual dictionary, but Mr. Jimenez said, the students he studied received no accommodations “so I was able to look at this in kind of a vacuum.”

English-proficient students outperformed ELLs on questions without a useful graphic by 7.9 percent. Yet when ELLs had a useful graphic, that gap closed to only 2.8 percent, and ELLs outperformed English-proficient students on 28 graphic questions.

That makes sense, said Rachel R. Prosser, a multicultural education researcher at the University of Colorado-Boulder. In a study presented at AERA of 78 students in grades 6-8, half of whom were ELLs, she found that even high-level English learners often mentally switch to their native language when working through concepts in a science multiple-choice test, to communicate words and concepts they were not yet certain of in English. She is now studying whether students are better able to understand and communicate science test questions which include a graphic element.

“We are interested in seeing data of students’ interpretation of a visual item,” she said.

Mr. Jimenez is conducting additional studies to determine whether the unconnected graphics help or hinder English-language learners’ ability to solve math problems and if the useful graphics help without other accommodations at different grades.

The full reports are not yet published, so I can’t include a copy here, but you can find the abstracts at AERA’s web site or contact Mr. Jimenez at

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.