Smarter Balanced Approves Testing Supports for English-Learners

By Lesli A. Maxwell — September 11, 2013 3 min read
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The Smarter Balanced states that are designing common-core assessments have agreed to a series of testing supports for students that include native language translations of test directions and test items in mathematics for students who are not yet proficient in English.

But not every English-learner in the 25 states that make up the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium will have access to the 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.

Meeting Tuesday in Los Angeles, the Smarter Balanced governing board approved a full set of “usability, accessibility, and accommodations” guidelines that outline the full range of testing supports and tools that will be made to all students, and, more specifically, to English-learners and students with disabilities. (For more detail on students with disabilities, see my colleague Christina Samuels’ write-up over at On Special Education.)

Among the language supports that ELLs, depending on the state where they live, may encounter on the Smarter Balanced math tests:

• Translated test directions;
• Translated glossaries for select words in math test items that help students understand specific terms;
• Complete or “stacked” translations of test items that will appear above the original item in English.

All of those translation tools will be “embedded” in a test’s digital platform and can be turned on or off by test administrators. In addition, ELLs may also use non-digital translated glossaries to help students understand selected math terms on some test items.

For the English/language arts assessment, English-learners may have access to a bilingual or dual language word-to-word dictionary for the extended writing portions of an ELA performance task.

All of the translation language supports will be available in Spanish, the predominant native language of students who are English-language learners in Smarter Balanced states. But Smarter Balanced will also offer translations in other languages, as determined by member states’ needs. So far, the consortium has committed to providing the glossary translation tools in Vietnamese and Arabic, the next two most widely used languages in the Smarter Balanced states.

Magda Chia, the director of underrepresented students for Smarter Balanced, said that the governing states unanimously approved the guidelines document. The guidelines include three broad categories of testing supports for students.

The first—called “universal tools"—are those that will be available to all students. Many of them are built into the technology platform students will use to take their tests and include things such as building breaks into the test sessions, calculators, English dictionaries, highlighters, and spell check.

The second category—known as “designated supports"—are features that will be available to any student an educator (or team of educators, along with parents, guardians, and students) deems can benefit. These supports would have to be identified for students ahead of any test administration. All of the language supports available for English-learners fall into this category. The third category—called accommodations—includes tools and supports that are specifically reserved for students with disabilities who have documented Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, or Section 504 plans as required by federal law.

The Smarter Balanced guidelines have been evolving over the past year and were informed by available research about which testing accommodations are effective in making test items more accessible to English-learners, as well as valid so as not to alter what a test item is intended to measure.

The variety of available supports will be field-tested with student test-takers next spring. The full rollout of the Smarter Balanced exams will be in the 2014-15 school year.

The other big group of states designing assessments—the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC—approved its first edition of testing supports for ELLs and students with disabilities in June.

In addition to approving the full guidelines, Smarter Balanced states also voted to establish a standing committee that will conduct regular reviews of the array of supports and tools and make adjustments as warranted.

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