Language Supports for English-Learners Ready for Smarter Balanced Field Tests

By Lesli A. Maxwell — February 24, 2014 3 min read
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In the coming weeks, thousands of students across the country will be sitting down to test drive the new common-core aligned assessments in reading and English/language arts. And for many students who are English-language learners, the tests they encounter could be a whole lot different from what they are accustomed to seeing on their state assessments.

That’s why the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium has made training tests available on its website so that students, teachers, and even parents can get a chance to experiment with the language-support features before field testing actually gets underway.

For example, English-learners who are native Spanish speakers and attend school in one of the 24 states that make up Smarter Balanced, may find that most of the test items in mathematics are available to them in both languages as “stacked translations.” That means that the math question on the screen is presented first in Spanish and appears in English just below. Any of the navigation buttons and instructions on the screen appear in Spanish.

The stacked Spanish/English translations are what Smarter Balanced calls a “designated support,” which means an educator who is intimately familiar with an indvidual student’s needs would have to first determine that such a testing support would be beneficial and turn it on in a student’s personalized test settings. Smarter Balanced officials said the stacked translations are probably most beneficial to ELLs who are already accustomed to using language supports in both Spanish and English. (The stacked translations will only be available in Spanish.) For one thing, having the math questions written in both languages does create an “additional reading load and an additional cognitive load” for students, said Magda Chia, who is the director of support for underrepresented students for Smarter Balanced. See an example of stacked translation of a 3rd grade math test item below.

Chia hosted a Web presentation earlier today for a select group of ELL scholars and advocates to demonstrate the various language supports that English-learners may come across when they take the common-core-aligned field tests. Smarter Balanced field tests kick off in mid-March and last through the middle of June.

Among the consortium’s language tools for the math tests that falls under the category of designated supports are word glossaries. Again, depending on the specific needs of an ELL, educators can turn on glossaries that will provide support to students in just their native language, or in their native language and in English. The glossaries are available in Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, Korean, Mandarin, Punjabi, Russian, Filipino, Ukrainian, and Vietnamese. Terms that are made available in the glossaries are specific to each of those languages.

Chia said that during early pilot testing of the language supports, most ELLs, especially those in the early grades, preferred using word glossaries to the stacked translations.

“They said the amount of text to read in the stacked translations was a lot,” she said.

Not every English-learner in the Smarter Balanced states will have access to the full range of available language supports. Member states with laws and regulations that restrict or prohibit the use of languages other than English to teach or assess ELLs do not have to offer such translation options for test-takers.

Also notable here is the change in labels for testing supports for English-language learners. What Smarter Balanced now calls a designated support, or a language resource, is what many in the field have long called an accommodation. Anything that is categorized as an accommodation by Smarter Balanced is reserved for students whose individualized education, or Section 504, plans call for its use.

For a refresher on Smarter Balanced’s three overall categories of testing supports, here’s a primer:

  • Universal tools, which are available to all students;
  • Designated supports, which are available to students at a teacher’s or school team’s discretion; and
  • Documented accommodations, which are supports that are a part of a student’s individualized education plan or other disability support plan. Embedded supports are a part of the test itself; nonembedded supports are provided by test administrators.

It’s also important for people to know that all the test items written for the Smarter Balanced field tests were measured against a “language complexity” tool to determine if the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax could be made simpler, without changing what the test item itself is meant to measure.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.