English-Language Learners

Improving Assessments for English Learners: Advice From Experts

By Ileana Najarro — June 27, 2023 3 min read
Young people around the planet earth, chatting in foreign languages with their digital devices showing the word hello in different languages within speech bubbles.
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Assessments in K-12 schools have traditionally been designed with a monolingual English-speaking student in mind. But the English learner population, speaking a variety of home languages, continues to grow across the country.

How effective, then, are traditional assessments in measuring what multilingual learners know in a given subject if they are limited to testing in English while they are still learning that language?

That topic was discussed in a recent webinar on multilingual learner engagement from the nonprofit Center for Applied Linguistics. Expert speakers offered advice on what it would take to rethink how English learners’ academic progress is measured at both the systemic level and classroom level, and what else can be done if assessments themselves can’t change overnight.

Rethinking what counts as assessments

When thinking about how to change assessments to best measure English learners’ progress, Micheline Chalhoub-Deville, a professor of education research methodology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, said much of what is considered best practice for these students benefits all students.

That includes not solely relying on one point in a school year when a test is given and ensuring that assessments are valid and reliable.

Assessments should change to allow students to access and engage with academic content in whatever language can best demonstrate their content knowledge. In practical terms, that could mean adapting tests with simplified instructions or multilingual test practices, Chalhoub-Deville said.

“Rather than saying the ideal model here is a monolingual English language student in grade 5, the ideal should be somebody who can utilize whatever language is at their disposal in order to achieve in science, in math, in the arts,” Chalhoub-Deville added. “This is what we care about when it comes to educating our students.”

Such reimagining is currently underway in North Carolina, where the state education department received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to look at how state assessments help level the playing field for students, said Ivanna Mann Thrower Anderson, a multilingual/Title III consultant for the state agency.

Specifically, the state wants to rethink science assessments after data analysis found gaps in achievement for English learners in this subject. Currently, science assessments are only given in English, Anderson said.

The state agency has now done focus groups with students, teachers, and families to get a better sense of what students are learning in science and what the assessments are not showing. In the next stage, the state plans to put together a group of researchers to develop tools, performance tasks, and rubrics teachers can use.

The work needed beyond changing assessments

Chalhoub-Deville shared how important it is for researchers like herself to work directly with policymakers after years of policy engagement being optional for researchers and scholars. Their work would more typically just filter through to policy, she said, but as accountability testing becomes even more critical for major decisions including education reform, researchers need to more proactively engage with policymakers.

Families of English learners should also play a bigger role in informing what should go into assessments for their multilingual students, Chalhoub-Deville said.

But changing statewide assessments doesn’t happen quickly even with strong collaborations between policymakers and researchers.

“If we can’t get these tests in their languages, we don’t have the capacity to do so, or we can’t get legislation to let us do that, then what work needs to be done with our classroom teachers to make sure that the instruction provided to them is making sure the content is accessible,” said Kia Johnson, director of Pre-K–12 language and literacy at the Center for Applied Linguistics.

Teachers need to think about other ways to measure progress in the classroom for English learners. They can use project portfolios, demonstrations, graphic organizers, promoting group work to learn from peers, and more, Johnson said, all of which can help students access academic content they will be tested on.

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