Assessments for ELLs

Read Chapter 7.5 of your textbook, “Issues of Assessments for ELLs.” While academic standards and proficiency can be assessed through formal tests and assessments for all students, English language learners need additional assessment opportunities in order for teachers to assess their language proficiency skills. Watch the webcast, Assessment of English Language Learners http:// featuring Dr. Lorraine Valdez Pierce. There is also a PowerPoint presentation to accompany this video that may be beneficial (located directly below the video link). After watching the video and reading the chapter, respond to the following questions:

  • How can current assessments (such as standardized testing) be biased against students who are not native speakers of English? 
  • Suppose you were teaching a unit on the water cycle. The unit focused on teaching the students the parts of the water cycle which include: precipitation, evaporation, and condensation. Describe one way that you may evaluate your ELLs using a formative and a performance-based assessment in the classroom based on this lesson topic and how these assessments can provide greater opportunities for ELLs to show their acquired knowledge with minimal interference due to a language barrier. Also, explain how your formative assessment can be used to guide your instruction while teaching the unit. Be specific.
  • Look at Table 7.2: TESOL Language Proficiency Standards in your text and describe how these assessments align with Standard 4. Provide at least two reasons.

7.5 Issues of Assessments for ELLs

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In many ways, language proficiency standards work hand in hand with assessments to help ELL teachers measure student progress. However, student assessment has been a complex and often controversial topic in education: Required assessments may carry a lot of weight and could result in long-lasting impacts on students’ lives. Sandberg and Reschly (2011) noted that

the purpose of assessment is to provide information that may be used to describe performance and make decisions about students—students meeting standards, those at risk for later failure, those who qualify for talented and gifted education programs, and so forth. (p. 145)

It is thus important that assessments be fair, equitable, valid, reliable, and appropriate. As Staehr Fenner (2013) and Hauck, Wolf, and Mislevy (2013) noted, there are critical reasons for this when it comes to ELLs: First, valid and reliable assessment measures ensure educators correctly identify, classify, place, and reclassify ELLs based on their language proficiency levels. Second, meaningful and accurate assessment data ensure effective instruction. With such data, both general education and ESL/ELD teachers can plan more effective lessons, differentiate instruction more successfully, and integrate content and language development opportunities. Finally, accurate data help hold schools, districts, and states accountable for ELLs’ development.

For ELLs in particular, assessment practices are multifaceted and can be overwhelming or confusing. O’Malley and Valdez Pierce (1996) identified six overarching purposes for assessing ELLs:

    • to identify ELLs
    • to place ELLs in appropriate language support programs
    • to reclassify ELLs or move them out of language support programs
    • to monitor ELLs’ progress
    • to evaluate ESL/ELD programs
    • to provide data for accountability measures

Most ESL teachers use assessments to accomplish most or all of these goals; some of the listed purposes might be a teacher’s primary responsibility, whereas others might be special assignments or a shared responsibility within the department.

Types of Assessment

Assessments for ELLs generally fall into two categories: (1) standardized assessments and (2) classroom assessments.

Standardized English Language Proficiency Assessments

The first use of a standardized assessment is in identifying ELLs. In most states, home language surveys or home language questionnaires are used to gather data on what language(s) are spoken in the child’s home. Based on the information—whether a language other than English has been identified—some states require an interview to confirm the need for standardized English language proficiency tests, the purpose of which is twofold: (1) to establish whether the child is eligible to receive language support services and (2) to determine what level of instruction would be most appropriate. TESOL’s five levels of language proficiency, discussed earlier in this chapter, provide critical information so the child can be placed in the best possible locally available program.

Assessments for


Standardized assessments are part of the fabric of education; they tend to be challenging for all students, and even more so for English language learners.

If a standardized English language proficiency test is indeed needed, there are several different tests currently available. The WIDA-ACCESS Placement Test (W-APT) is one example. W-APT results guide educators regarding some critical decisions, such as identification and placement of ELLs. The W-APT is one component of WIDA’s comprehensive assessment system (see more at  Other states that belong to the ELPA21 consortium (discussed earlier in this chapter) utilize the assessment measures developed for participating states only. In non-WIDA or non-ELPA21 member states, locally developed standardized tests are used for identification and placement purposes, such as the NYSITELL in New York. In some states, school officials also administer additional language surveys and review prior school records such as transcripts to make a more informed decision about student placement (Gottlieb, 2006).

Standardized language proficiency tests are also used annually to document student progress and program accountability. In WIDA member states, the ACCESS for ELLs (Assessing Comprehension and Communication in English State-to-State for English Language Learners) is utilized as the standardized English language proficiency assessment in kindergarten through 12th grade. English language learners take this test annually in WIDA Consortium member states. Test results help monitor ELLs’ progress in acquiring academic English and provide data for accountability purposes. In non-WIDA member states, tests similar to the ACCESS have been developed. ELPA21 assessments are used in the ELPA member states. In California, the California English Language Development Test (CELDT) is the state-mandated assessment given each year, and in New York, the annual test to measure progress is called NYSESLAT.

Finally, most states use the results of the progress-monitoring standardized English language proficiency tests to determine whether English language development (ELD) or English as a second language (ESL) services are no longer necessary. Arizona is one exception. Arizona uses the results from its state and federally approved standards-based assessment tool—the Arizona English Language Learner Assessment (AZELLA)—for both placement and reclassification purposes (see http:// Student portfolios or teacher recommendations based on classroom assessments and other data (e.g., GPAs) could also be helpful in making an accurate decision regarding whether an ELL needs further language services (Gottlieb, 2006).

Classroom-Based Formative and Summative Assessments

During much of the academic year, the main assessment task teachers tend to undertake is to monitor student progress, for both language development and academic attainment. This often involves using a combination of formative and summative assessments in the classroom.

Formative assessments are designed to monitor student performance on an ongoing basis. Teachers use the data collected from these assessments to plan their next lessons and immediately address areas that may need additional work. Fisher and Frey (2007) made a compelling case for checking for understanding and conducting frequent formative assessments that help decide next steps in instruction, including setting new learning objectives, deciding what needs to be pre-taught or retaught, and determining which task would need to be differentiated. Formative assessments happen daily in the classroom, both formally and informally, such as through the use of teacher observations (anecdotal notes on student behavior), student logs and journal entries (revealing student language use in a non-threatening format), and exit cards (short, written responses to prompts or student summaries of what they learned during the lesson). The New York State Education Department (NYSED) (2004) recommended conferencing with students and keeping an

anecdotal record of observations of each child’s speaking, listening, reading, and writing behavior. The record may be used for parent conferences and shared with the student. It shows the student’s strengths and helps the teacher develop appropriate strategies to further improve performance. (p. 31)

Formative assessments are closely tied to daily instructional practices, so any learning activity can be used as a formative assessment tool: a KWL chart (What I Know, What I Want to Learn, and What I Have Learned), students’ written work samples, learning log and diary entries, a completed graphic organizer, and so on.

In contrast, summative assessments are administered at the end of a unit of study to measure how well students have mastered the curriculum and met the unit goals. The information derived from these assessments can help teachers determine how best to plan lessons and activities to maximize student learning in future courses. Some teachers use more traditional tools such as paper and pencil tests with multiple choice questions, true and false questions, and essay prompts. Others prefer performance-based assessment measures that most typically include a project: Students have to develop or create something through which they demonstrate that they have reached the goals of the entire unit. For example, at the completion of a unit on energy, 10th graders may generate a community outreach plan on how to reduce waste in homes and businesses and how to make the community more energy efficient.

Among others, Gottlieb (2006), Guskey and Jung (2013), Jung and Guskey (2012), and Staehr Fenner (2013) have recommended a multiple-measure assessment system to be established that includes a combination of carefully crafted formative and summative assessments. This system is implemented over the course of a certain period of time. The alternative is to use a single test (a summative assessment) at the end of the unit or the end of the marking period to determine whether students have mastered the content and made progress toward language proficiency.

Gottlieb (2006) suggested that classroom assessments must reflect not only the target content but also the language(s) of instruction. According to her recommendations, both the formal and informal assessments used in the classroom should measure the degree to which students have mastered the content and the language necessary for communicating the ideas associated with the lesson. She promoted the use of student portfolios (collections of student work samples) and self- or peer assessments (checklists or rubrics that the students complete about their own work or each other’s performances) as ways to assess ELLs fairly and comprehensively—as opposed to relying on a single, traditional, paper-and-pencil summative assessment. The most desirable assessment practices address both content and language development, with the types of accommodations that are most conducive to the students’ language proficiency level.

Implementing Fair and Equitable Assessment Practices for ELLs

Schools need a collaboratively developed, fair, and equitable class and school grading and reporting system that has a clear purpose, aligns to standards, and is supported by the most current research (Guskey, 2014). To ensure that all stakeholders can celebrate successes without losing touch with what is expected of students at a particular grade level or content area, make sure you include measures to report both student growth in language development and academic attainment as well as core content achievement in relation to grade-level standards and benchmarks.

TESOL Standards

As noted in Chapter 1, TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) is an international organization that serves as a professional body to support teachers by disseminating critical information and publishing instructional resources. TESOL responded to the standards movement by forming a task force that would work on developing a common framework, publishing the first national PreK–12 English Language Proficiency Standards in 1997. This first edition of language proficiency standards was organized around three broad-based goals: to teach students how to use English (1) to communicate in social settings, (2) to achieve academically in all content areas, and (3) in socially and culturally appropriate ways (TESOL, 2006).

It is important to note that these ESL standards did not emphasize academic language proficiency across the content areas, and the WIDA Consortium sought to address this oversight with its own set of standards in 2002 (discussed later in this section). In response, TESOL revised its standards in 2006 (see Table 7.2). The new standards, intended for all preK–12 ELLs, specified that “English language learners communicate for social, intercultural, and instructional purposes within the school setting” and that they “communicate information, ideas, and concepts necessary for academic success” in the subjects of language arts, math, science, and social studies (TESOL, 2006, para. 3–7).

Table 7.2: TESOL’s 2006 language proficiency standardsStandard 1English language learners communicate for social, intercultural, and instructional purposes within the school setting.Standard 2English language learners communicate information, ideas, and concepts necessary for academic success in the area of language arts.Standard 3English language learners communicate information, ideas, and concepts necessary for academic success in the area of mathematics.Standard 4English language learners communicate information, ideas, and concepts necessary for academic success in the area of science.Standard 5English language learners communicate information, ideas, and concepts necessary for academic success in the area of social studies.Source: From TESOL Pre-K–12 English Language Proficiency Standards Framework. Copyright © 2015 TESOL International Association. Reprinted by permission.

Note that while the first TESOL standard focuses on social language, which can be used both inside and outside the school context, the last four standards (one for each subject area) emphasize the development of academic language across the core content areas. As we will discuss in this chapter, supporting academic language development is a critical task for ELL teachers.

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