English Learners

As ELL Tests Move Online, Educators Hope for Better Gauge of Skills

By Corey Mitchell — September 22, 2015 7 min read
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Two computer-based tests of English-language proficiency will debut this school year, ushering in a new era of online testing for millions of the nation’s English-learners.

Leaders of the federally funded consortia that developed the exams are hopeful the tests will offer a more complete picture of how English-learners are grasping the language.

The World Class Instructional Design and Assessment Consortium, or WIDA, will launch its operational online test, ACCESS for ELLs 2.0, in November. The 36-state group shares English-language-proficiency standards and assessments for English-learners that are aligned with the Common Core State Standards.

The English Language Proficiency Assessment for the 21st Century consortium, known as ELPA 21, will roll out the new test for its 10 member states in February and March.

Primarily used to screen students for ELL services and to determine when they no longer require language instruction, the tests measure students’ progress in learning to listen, speak, read, and write in English.

To Show Language Proficiency, ELLs Need Computer Proficiency

With a major shift to online testing of English-language proficiency, some educators worried that ELLs might lack the digital skills to complete the tests. In field testing earlier this year and last year, however, educators reported that most ELLs tested had experience with computers.


SOURCE: World Class Instructional Design and Assessment Consortium

During field tests conducted earlier this year, the consortia provided schools with interactive demos that gave students and administrators a sneak peek at the test formats and tools without tipping them off to actual test content.

The field tests also allowed schools to get a feel for their technology needs, which have emerged as a central concern as the test formats shift from paper-and-pencil exams to a fully digital experience.

“Now it’s a much more engaging experience, with different item types and visuals,” said Carsten Wilmes, WIDA’s director of assessment. “The technology is allowing us to support students in ways we couldn’t before.”

As the test rollouts near, the designers are now focused on determining whether the assessments need changes before their wide-scale launches.

From measuring how students interacted with online test items to ensuring timely technical support for test administrators and scrambling to track down the right equipment, the trial runs yielded challenges and lessons learned.

Digital Divide?

While technology concerns arose, the field tests did help allay fears that a digital divide would emerge, leaving large numbers of English-learners to grapple with confusing or unfamiliar technology.

“It was a concern, especially for states who had never done an online assessment of their ELLs,” said Kara Schlosser, a spokeswoman for ELPA 21, whose test is also aligned with common core.

During the field test for WIDA’s exam, district- and school-level coordinators and administrators reported that nearly 90 percent of students were experienced or very experienced computer users. But a third of students who participated in the speaking portion of the ACCESS 2.0 exam either said they weren’t comfortable or didn’t know if they were comfortable speaking to the computers that were used to administer the test.

The WIDA consortium states did, however, struggle to find adequate numbers of newcomer ELLs and other students with beginner-level English proficiency to take part in the field test.

And the slightly more than 10 percent of students who administrators in the WIDA states said had limited exposure to computers could be an indication that tens of thousands of ELLs could encounter problems with the new formats, turning the assessment into a test of both English proficiency and computer literacy.

Concerned that early-elementary students might struggle with manipulating a computer mouse, ELPA 21 officials ensured that administrators were trained on how to help students click on and drag and drop items without providing improper assistance, said Cathryn Still, the consortium’s project manager.

Officials in WIDA member state Virginia said that testing of its youngest ELLs emerged as a concern because of the exam’s technology demands, even though Virginia has used online statewide assessments for more than a decade.

Much like the students, states have a wide range of experiences in dealing with online assessments, especially for their English-learners.

“Some states are ready, some aren’t,” said Wilmes, the WIDA assessment chief. “It’s been a transition period.”

In ELPA 21’s report on issues that were flagged in the field tests, the consortium stressed the importance of allowing ample practice time for students and test administrators before the operational rollout.

“The practice is critical because ... staff get anxious as well,” said Martha Martinez, an ELPA 21 education specialist with the Oregon education department.

A pioneer in online K-12 testing, Oregon has offered technology-based English-proficiency exams to its ELLs since 2006.

But some ELPA 21 states, such as Arkansas, face a huge transition.

That state’s English-language-proficiency tests have been administered one-on-one between teacher and student.

Historically, the state’s paper-and-pencil test had taken about two weeks per student, said Alan Lytle, the ELL-assessment specialist with the Arkansas education department.

The new online test will reduce the amount of time that Arkansas’ schools will have to devote to administering the exam to a week or less, Lytle estimates.

Similarly, in a survey of educators who were involved in WIDA’s field test, 82 percent of respondents found the online exam was easier, or equally labor-intensive, to administer compared with traditional tests.

Because this will be Virginia’s first foray into computer-based English-proficiency assessments, state officials will allow districts to decide between the online and paper-and-pencil ACCESS 2.0 before going completely online in 2016-17.

Districts’ decisions may hinge on their ability to buy enough headsets with microphones, a required piece of technology for the listening and speaking portions of the exam.

Testing the Waters

The ramp-up to a new generation of assessments for English-learners began in 2011, when WIDA landed $10 million from a federal grant competition to design an English-language-development test linked to the common-core standards.

Roughly 19,800 students in 26 states or territories participated in the 2015 WIDA field test, which allowed the states to take part in any of the four testing domains: listening, reading, speaking, or writing. Field tests of the writing exams for students in grades 4-12 took place in 2014.

States in the WIDA consortium expect to test close to 2 million ELLs this school year, and roughly two-thirds of those states are committed to the online assessment, Wilmes said.

Nearly 15,000 students took part in the field tests for ELPA 21, which, like WIDA, was launched with support from a $9 million federal grant. The 10-state consortium includes Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Ohio, Oregon, Washington, and West Virginia. The other two members, Louisiana and South Carolina, didn’t join in the field testing.

The testing pool included four target groups: current ELLs, former ELLs, students with disabilities, and native English-speakers. The consortia tested a small pool of native English speakers to measure how they’d perform compared to ELLs, according to Still, the consortium’s project manager.

Lytle, Arkansas’ ELPA 21 administrator, praised the exam’s melding of listening, speaking, reading, and writing assessments to “make it closer to the way language is used.”

He also endorsed the exam’s “focus on language tools, as opposed to vocabulary” as a true gauge of a student’s proficiency. The consortium expects to test 400,000 ELLs this school year.

Finding Students

With the grant competition, the U.S. Department of Education aimed to spur collaboration among states in designing English-language-proficiency exams that are in line with the common-core standards issued by a national state-led initiative in 2010.

English-learners, who number more than 5 million nationwide, are the fastest-growing student group in the United States.

The broad, multistate consortia will allow for better tracking of the progress of ELLs, a shifting and often transient population, said Drew Linkon, the assistant director of assessment at the Missouri Department of Education.

When students leave for another state or district, the similarity in English-proficiency assessments and standards should allow educators in their new locations to better assess their proficiency, said Robert Linquanti, the project director for English-learner evaluation and accountability support at WestEd, a San Francisco-based education consulting, research, and training group.

Until recently, districts had to rely on home-language surveys, many of which aren’t uniform, even when transferring between districts in a state. But roughly half the nation’s English-learners won’t participate in either of the new online tests: Three of the four states with the highest ELL enrollments don’t belong to either WIDA or ELPA 21.

The holdouts with large numbers of ELLs are California, New York, and Texas, all of which use English-proficiency tests they developed. The three states together have roughly 2.5 million English-learners, roughly the same number as the rest of the states combined.

Florida, which has the third-largest ELL enrollment, joined WIDA this summer after leaving ELPA 21 last year.

A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2015 edition of Education Week as English-Learner Tests Moving to Digital Realm


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