English-Language Learners

What All Teachers Should Know About WIDA’s Test for English Learners

By Ileana Najarro — May 24, 2024 7 min read
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Schools are required to test the progress of their English learners each year to determine whether they still need language instruction services or can exit out of such programs. In close to 40 states, that test is known as the WIDA ACCESS test.

What is the WIDA ACCESS test used for?

Offered both online and in a paper format, ACCESS tests students’ proficiency in four domains: speaking, reading, listening, and writing in English. The questions are modeled along academic content they would see in regular classes. For instance, reading questions might be about a science topic. The test is checking for language use in academic contexts, not content knowledge nor social language.

Teachers who specialize in English-language instruction say their general education peers play a key role in prepping students to succeed on the ACCESS test. And researchers who study English-language acquisition agree.

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This collaboration between general and specialized teachers is even more critical now, researchers say, because new analyses of national ACCESS scores show that average scores continue to trend down since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For general education teachers to better support language acquisition for the English learners in their classrooms, it starts with familiarizing themselves with the test itself and what scores can tell them about their students’ language needs.

“There is a gap between what general education teachers likely know about the WIDA test because they are unable to see it administered,” said Missy Testerman, the 2024 National Teacher of the Year and a K-8 English-as-a-second-language teacher in Rogersville, Tenn. “I feel like it’s a lot more rigorous than most people are aware of in terms of what our English-language learners are asked to do.”

The WIDA ACCESS test covers language use in an academic context

The ACCESS test takes up to four hours to complete, though timing can vary, and is typically split across multiple days in one week.

The 36 states (as well as additional territories and federal agencies) that use the test are part of what’s known as the WIDA consortium—which provides common standards as the measure of English language proficiency. The test builds from those standards in terms of levels of difficulty by grade level. It’s also an adaptive test—in particular, the online test increases or decreases levels of difficulty (known as tiers) as the student progresses, said Mark Chapman, senior innovation researcher at WIDA. For the paper test, administrators set the difficulty level for each student.

States then individually set the scores students need to get across the four domains to demonstrate proficiency in English. Their scores determine if they remain in an English-learner program or if they can exit.

ACCESS is not a test students can study for. However, students who consistently use and are exposed to language in an academic context throughout the school day are better prepared for the test.

“It’s really important to disentangle that everyday social language, that we know many students who were born in the United States and grew up in the United States … tend to be highly proficient in,” Chapman said. (Many English learners were born or grew up in the United States.)

“But that doesn’t necessarily mean you can understand the language needed to describe a science experiment, or you have the language to talk through the solution to a math problem. Those are different types of language development, which we’re trying to assess.”

What is taking WIDA ACCESS like for students?

Both online and paper versions of the test incorporate several visuals that help keep students engaged throughout and serve as additional support for younger English learners and newcomer students still very new to the English language, said Fabiana MacMillan, WIDA’s director of test development.

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Students select answers from multiple-choice options, write or type out sentences and paragraphs, click and drag images, and even record themselves responding to prompts.

To loop general education colleagues into her work with English learners, Testerman in past years has taken sample questions and practice tests that are freely available on the WIDA website to general classrooms and led activities with the whole class.

“It’s really very interesting because sometimes the general education teachers are shocked at how many of their [non-English-learner] students in the general education classroom have trouble with those tasks, particularly around the writing piece,” Testerman said.

“I feel like in some cases, it’s given my [English-learner] students more respect, because their teachers and their classmates see the types of things that they’re having to do on the WIDA test,” she added.

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What can the results on WIDA ACCESS tests tell teachers about students?

At Volusia County public schools in Florida, Betsy Sotomayor, an English-for-speakers-of-other-languages resource teacher for the district, regularly meets with general education teachers to review ACCESS sample questions and students’ scores and what they mean for their general classroom work.

For instance, a student may score low in the speaking portion of ACCESS but high in reading. The teacher can ask: Is that student getting enough time to practice speaking in academic contexts in the classroom?

Teachers then have a better sense of what language practice is needed in general classrooms, Sotomayor said.

“It’s just the fear of the unknown. But then once [teachers] understand how valuable this assessment is, they’re all in, they’re really all in, and they really appreciate it,” she said.

General education teachers can improve academic language use for all students

For all educators to better support English learners’ language development, they first need the right mindset.

Just because an English learner’s vocabulary may not be as expansive as others, or they write in phrases rather than sentences, doesn’t mean they’re not connecting with academic content, said Leslie Grimm, assistant director of educator learning, research, and practice at WIDA. They may just not be able to express their content knowledge in full in English yet.

“If you go into these contexts thinking 100 percent that you recognize, you affirm, and you respect where they are in their learning trajectory, and what they know and what they can do, I think that you’ll set up a more rigorous classroom environment,” Grimm said. “Because the reality is classroom environments have to be rigorous to meet any standards, whether it’s English-language development standards or content standards.”

Whether it’s preparing English learners for state standardized tests or the ACCESS test, Grimm has one big piece of advice for all teachers: maximize the opportunities for students to engage across language modalities. (Speaking, writing, etc.)

English learners need opportunities to practice talking and writing in class. Grimm suggests setting up group activities that involve turn and talk where, given a topic, a student may say something and then another says something different, but they’re building on that previous idea and expanding on it.

Students should also be given clear directions on what they are doing across modalities. For instance, if a student is asked to describe something that they’re noticing in a science experiment and must write that down, what kind of language would they use? They may name what they are studying but then may use a pronoun to describe it later, rather than restate the name.

If at the end of a social studies unit students must engage in classroom debate, there are specific language features used when speaking in a debate that students should practice using throughout the unit.

Testerman said that promoting formal, language use in general classrooms is something that benefits all students, especially since language learning never stops as language itself evolves. For instance, the word zoom used to mean moving at a fast pace but is now more often used to refer to the virtual meeting platform and the verb of using said platform, she said.

But Testerman also recognizes how busy teachers are. It’s why she advocates for district leaders to facilitate time for general classroom teachers to plan with English-as-a-second-language teachers so they can review language objectives and learning standards together and come up with a plan on how to best promote language development across the school day.

A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2024 edition of Education Week as What All Teachers Should Know About WIDA’s Test for English Learners


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