Standardized Tests and English Language Learners

It’s already that time of year when spring standardized test results are starting to come in. Ohio’s AIR tests use a 1-5 format, with five being the best, and the majority of my students got ones. A mainstream teacher would be disappointed with this (and to be honest, I am too) but this isn’t actually surprising for mostly newcomer ESL students.

Why? It has to do with how people learn language. Language researchers sort language into Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS for short) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). BICS comes way before CALP, regardless of what language we’re coming from or going to. This makes intuitive sense; if you’ve ever learned a language, you probably noticed that you got a handle on “how are you doing?” before “what does a steep slope on a velocity-time graph tell you?” BICS comes embedded with more context and is usually more necessary for interacting in the world.

Tests are almost entirely CALP-type language. Since we’re testing academics, this is probably what we want them to be, but it is problematic for English language learners who haven’t quite grasped CALP yet. Research shows that while BICS develops in a year or two, it takes five to seven years for a student to have developed their CALP. And that’s assuming the student has had prior schooling in their first language–if not, it jumps to seven to ten years! If students get here as high school freshmen, which many of mine do, this literally does not give them time to develop the needed language during the span of high school.

So already, these tests are about language just as much as much as content. But that’s not the only confounding factor. Our tests are, like probably many of yours, computer-based. This adds computer literacy to the list of things being tested. We take for granted that students can drag and drop, know to scroll to get to all the answer choices, are able to type, and so on. This may not actually be true, especially if students haven’t been in the United States or in formal schooling for long. If you haven’t taught it, they may not know it.

So the tests aren’t great at measuring what we want them to measure, at least for this population. We can’t just hand-wave this all away, though, because there are real implications for our kids. At the high school level, they need a certain number of combined points on the different subject tests to graduate. (People often think that English language learners are exempt from these testing requirements. They are not.) So what’s a caring teacher like yourself to do to help your English language learners succeed on these assessments? Some ideas:

  • Give students the accommodations they’re entitled to. You may not be aware of what they get for each test, or may not think it will be helpful, but provide it anyway. This could include extra time, dictionaries, listening to the test via headphones, or word-to-word dictionaries, to name a few. Look into what accommodations are allowed for the tests your students will take, and give students some practice with those! That way, on test day, they can use the dictionary as a tool they’re familiar with, and not spend their time flipping through it trying to figure out how it works.
  • Practice tier II language. We spend a lot of time helping kids with content-specific vocabulary like photosynthesis, as we should, but we can’t forget about tier II words like analyze or complex. This is often “test language”. Go through different contexts and questions and talk about what the question is asking. Bonus: these words often show up across different content areas.
  • Make sure your students have the computer skills they need to succeed. Just like you would do with your content, see what students can already do and focus in on weak areas. There are a lot of great tools out there that will progress students in science while also helping their computer literacy. MobyMax has a lot of drag and drop questions, while Explore Learning has cool “gizmo” simulations that allow students to explore the world around them.
  • Advocate for your students. Even with these strategies, the testing deck is stacked against English language learners, with heavy implications for their future.If you have the opportunity, fight for them.

Any other considerations? Let me know below!

standardized tests


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