Assessing second language learners equitably

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This paper presents a study of the need to equitably assess students with diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds in the learning environment. With the number of English Language Learners (ELLs) on the rise it has become a challenge for Educational boards to develop assessments that cater to students with wide and varying range of English language proficiency. This paper examines the following:

  • Possible factors that contribute to inequity in assessing an ELL.
  • Possible issues arising due to wrong classification of students with respect to proficiency in English.
  • Framework for equitable classroom based assessment.
  • Factors that help build an assessment system that eliminates educational inequities.

For this study, English language learner is defined as a student who speaks a language other than English at home or who speaks a variety of English which is different from the variety of English that is used for the purpose of instruction in schools.

Second-Language Proficiency and Academic Achievement

It has long been recognized that a substantial achievement gap exists between language-minority students and native speakers of English (August & Hakuta, 1997; Silver, Smith, & Nelson, 1995). For example, they are 1.5 times more likely to drop out of school than native speakers (Cardenas, Robledo, & Waggoner, 1988). English-language learners also receive lower grades, are judged by their teachers to have lower academic abilities, and score below their classmates on standardized tests of reading and math (Moss & Puma, 1995).

A significant gap in math scores, in particular, has caused widespread concern among educators (Khisty, 1997; secada, Fennema, & Adajian, 1995). Moreover, language-minority students are less likely to be represented in math-related majors in higher education, which affects their career opportunities and lifetime earnings (Bernardo, 2002; Cuevas, 1984; Torres & Zeidler, 2001). Apparently, math achievement plays a significant role in the academic and social stratification of minorities (Khisty, 1995; secada, 1992). Thus, English language learner (ELL) students' math achievement-or lack thereof-should be explored in light of new ways ELL students are being assessed.

Cummins (1980,1981) has provided a much-needed framework in the field of bilingual and English as a second Language (ESL) education. His critical work reveals why ELL students' academic achievement cannot be assessed in the same manner as that of their Fluent English Proficient counterparts. He asserts that oral fluency cannot be regarded as academic competence in academic settings.

Cummins theorizes that there are two distinctively different proficiencies. Basic conversational language ability is acquired rapidly. ELL students take only a year or 2 to become proficient in conversational English (see also Hakuta, Butler, & Witt, 1999). In contrast, attaining grade level of academic English can take far longer, as long as 5 to 7 years. Academic English is necessary for tasks that are context reduced, such as reading chapters in a textbook that describes different math functions. Learning to read and write in the first language supports success with reading and writing in the second language (August & Hakuta, 1997; Cuevas, 1997; Roberts, 1994). Literacy skills related to decoding tasks of reading have been found to transfer between languages (Bialystock, 1991; Goodman, Goodman, & Flores, 1979; Hudelson, 1987; Mace-Matluck, 1982). However, these skills must be contextualized within meaningful instructional contexts for full transfer to occur.

Task Difficulty

Cummins has devised a model for planning instruction and assessment for ELLs. The model consists of 4 quadrants. Along one continuum tasks range from cognitively undemanding to cognitively demanding; and along the other continuum from context-embedded to context-reduced. In a context-embedded task the student has access to a range of additional visual and oral cues; for example he can look at illustrations of what is being talked about or ask questions to confirm understanding. In a context-reduced task the students is requires to listen to a lecture or read dense text, where there are no other sources of help than the language itself. In order to achieve academic success it is essential that ELL students develop the ability to accomplish the tasks in quadrant D which is clearly cognitively demanding and context-reduced.


Accommodations are intended to make language less of a factor, or ideally a non-factor, when measuring performance (Abedi 2001).

Accommodations in the testing environment or administration procedures forELL students included providing extra time, testing in small-group or one-on-one sessions, reading aloud to a student, scribing a student's responses etc.

Intended and unintended accommodations effects must be monitored and evaluated closely. Ideally, accommodations will have no effect on native English speaking students, while reducing the language barrier for ELL students (Abedi, 2001).

Factors that need to be considered while considering accommodation for an ELL

Language factors

Varying levels of proficiency in English

ELLs vary widely in their level of English language proficiency. ELLs have varying levels of oral and written English proficiency. Students who can converse easily in English may not have the literacy skills necessary to understand the written directions for a standardized test.

Varying levels of proficiency in native language

ELLs also vary in their levels of proficiency and literacy in their native languages. Native language accommodation might not necessarily work for students who may have not had any formal schooling in their native language.

Educational Background Factors

Varying degrees of formal schooling in native language

The degree of native-language formal schooling affects the level of content area skills and knowledge of the student. Then the main challenge for these students is simply to transfer their existing content knowledge into English. These factors need to be condired when making decisions about appropriate accommodations.

Varying degrees of formal schooling in English

ELLs also vary in the number of years they have spent in schools where English is the language of instruction. They also differ from one another by the type of instruction they have received while in English-speaking schools. Bilingual, full English immersion and English as a second language are three of the many existing instructional programs for ELLs, and there is a great variation in how these programs are implemented.

Varying degrees of exposure to standardized testing

Students in some countries may have had no exposure to multiple-choice questions, while those from other countries may never have seen a constructed-response question. Even ELLs from an educationally competent background and with comparatively high level of English language proficiency may not be accustomed to standardized, large-scale assessments and may be at a disadvantage in these testing situations.

Cultural Factors

Varying degrees of acculturation to mainstream

ELLs come from a wide range of cultural backgrounds, and cultural differences may place ELLs at a disadvantage in a standardized testing situation. Lack of familiarity with mainstream culture can potentially have an impact on test scores for ELLs. Students who are unfamiliar with culture may be at a disadvantage relative to their peers because they may hold different assumptions about the testing situation or the educational environment in general, have different background knowledge and experience, or possess different sets of cultural values and beliefs, and therefore respond to questions differently. For example students may come from cultures where cooperation is valued over competition and may be at a disadvantage in those testing situations where the goal is for each individual student to perform to the best of their ability. Students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds may also respond to questions differently and may have background knowledge and experiences that are different from those presumed by a test developer.

The Role of Classroom Assessments in Promoting Learning for ELLs.

Research has shown that improved assessment practices at the classroom level can have powerful, beneficial effects on transfer of learning and measures of achievement, including standardized test scores (Black & Wiliam, 1998; Stiggins, 2002). Black & Wiliam found that improved formative or classroom assessment practices helped low achievers more than other students. Teachers must be provided with the assessment tools they need for increasing the achievement of ELLs. New understandings of the learning process indicate that assessment and learning are intimately linked. These new understandings of learning need to be applied to classroom-based assessment practices (Marzano, Pickering, & McTighe, 1993).

It has been noted that classroom assessments have high value for students to engage in their learning and for teachers to monitor student`s actual progress (Seigel, 2006). It is a challenge for teachers to develop a fair assessment. The theoretical framework for Equitable classroom assessment (Seigel, 2005) summarises that classroom assessments for ELL`s should:

  1. Match the learning goals of their original items and match the language of instruction;
  2. Be comprehensible for ELLs, both linguistically and culturally;
  3. Challenge students to think about difficult ideas without watering down content;
  4. Elicit student understanding and
  5. Scaffold the use of language and support student learning.

It was found that both the groups (ELL and non-ELL) performed better when the tests were modified for the ELL students keeping this frame work in mind (Seigel 2006).

So now the question is how aware are the teachers about the need for developing an equitable assessment. In order to move ahead with the educational reforms more professional development on using classroom assessment with ELLs is required (Garcia and Pearson, 1994).

Performance-Based Assessment

According to O'Malley and Valdez Pierce (1996, p. 4) performance-based assessment "consists of any form of assessment in which the student constructs a response orally or in writing." It can be formal or informal, an observation, or an assigned task. O'Malley and Valdez Pierce list six characteristics of performance based assessment that they adapted from Herman et al.: constructed response; higher-order thinking; authenticity; integrative; process and product; and depth vs. breadth.

In Performance-based assessment (PBA) meaningful and engaging tasks, like sample stories, lab reports, research projects, essays, video tapes of oral presentation, drama etc., are developed where there is a integration of language and content-area skills. So that students are motivated to use language, as realistically as possible integrating content area concepts authentic assessments are used to promotes application of knowledge and skills (Frisby, 2001; McTighe & Ferrara, 1998; Wiggins, 1998). Such assessments along with a combination of other PBAs can be used in order to promote transfer of learning. A large range and number of tasks are needed over time, however, to ensure the generalisation of PBAs (Pierce, 1996). Lorraine Valdez Pierce in the article 'Performance-Based Assessment: Promoting Achievement for English Language Learners' said that "well-constructed performance tasks are more likely than traditional types of assessment to do the following:

  • provide comprehensible input to students
  • use meaningful, context embedded tasks through hands-on or collaborative activities
  • show what students know and can do through a variety of assessment tasks
  • support the language and cognitive needs of ELLs
  • allow for flexibility in meeting individual needs
  • use criterion-referenced assessment for judging student work
  • provide feedback to students on strengths and weaknesses
  • generate descriptive information that can guide instruction
  • provide information for teaching and learning that results in improved student performance

Further, PBAs have the potential to provide in-depth information about a student's ability to integrate knowledge for specific curriculum objectives or standards."

It can be seen from the factors listed above how PBAs are more appropriate for ELLs than the traditional testing format.

With teachers under constant pressure to get students to perform well in standardised achievement tests PBAs can help the teachers reduce the achievement gap between an ELL and non-ELL. PBA not only provides the teacher with a feedback on improving instruction to promote learning but also promotes confidence to ELL students on their ability.

Self Assessment

Self Assessment is an ongoing process of students getting to know themselves as learners. It is essential for students to:

  • reflect on their progress towards learning goal,
  • monitor and regulate what they do and how they do it,
  • set realistic goals for themselves,
  • use learning strategies effectively and
  • evaluate the quality of work and knowledge

Self assessment is generally accomplished when teachers provide students with the following:

  • specific feedback about the student
  • opportunities to get feedback from peers
  • time to set learning goals and learning strategies
  • prompts to facilitate reflection

Self assessment helps in motivating students in building their self-confidence and provides a scaffold to build learning. This also helps in making the criteria of evaluation transparent.

It is still a challenge to effectively use self assessment as it performed through complex cognitive processes which are affected by many uncontrollable factors.

Factors that help build an assessment system that eliminates educational inequities.

In order to protect students from unfair and damaging interpretations and to provide parents and communities with an accurate overall picture of student achievement, educators need to be aware of the promise and the challenges inherent in using alternative assessment practices for "high stake decisions" (such as student retention, promotion, graduation, and assignment to particular instructional groups), which have profound consequences for the students affected. Only then will educators be able to build and use an assessment system that is a vehicle for eliminating educational inequities. Although alternative assessments can help ensure ethnic, racial, economic, and gender fairness, equity cannot be achieved by reforms to assessment alone. Change will result only from a trio of reform initiatives aimed at ongoing professional development in curriculum and instruction, improved pedagogy, and quality assessment.

Multiple assessment indicators are especially important for assessing the performance of ethnic-minority and language-minority students (Koelsch, Estrin, and Farr (1995)). The real challenge comes in selecting or developing a combination of assessments that work together as part of a comprehensive assessment system to assess all students equitably within the school community.

The first and most critical step in assessing with equity is determining the purposes for assessing and clarifying whether those purposes are low stakes or high stakes (Winking & Bond, 1995). In many cases, schools, districts, and states have not a single purpose, but multiple purposes--some low stakes and some high stakes--for assessing student performance.

The need of an 'assessment briefing' to communicate requirements -

The following could help in assessment briefing:

  • Outlining broad assessment-related expectations of students and communicating the criteria on which students will be marked.
  • Students can be presented with a written guideline which contain explicit, unambiguous instructions and exemplars that model the appropriate discipline-based thinking, writing and/or performance to guide student efforts in completing assignments and studying for exams.
  • Clearly outlining the department policy and practice on extensions and special consideration along with defining the relevant resources and support.

Assessment debriefing

Effective debriefings shed light on the underlying drivers of performance, and with these drivers illuminated, instructors can target discussion and teaching to what is meaningful to learners. This approach can be used in short ad hoc learning conversations to encourage reflection and promote deeper learning.

It is helpful to avoid assuming any difficulties these students may have with understanding assessment requirements are necessarily related to language. Many Second language learners have a high level of language proficiency but a low level of cultural knowledge. The use of a local jargon and idioms in instructions can affect the students' understanding of the task.

Students can become disheartened if they do not do as well as they thought they might have in assignments or exams. Often it is helpful to gently alert students that it may take time to adjust to the requirements of assessment and that many students do not get perfect or very high marks for assignments and exams, especially for those who are at University level, irrespective of their prior high scores.

Defining the Construct

A second criterion for validity is a precise and explicit definition of the construct the test is intended to measure. For K-12 assessments, state standards underlie the test specifications. Sometimes other state documents, such as curriculum frameworks, may clarify knowledge and skills stated in the standards. When defining a construct for an assessment to be given to ELLs, consider in particular how English language skills interact with the construct. For example, when defining the construct for a mathematics test, consider whether it is intended to be a test of mathematics, in which case the test should require no or absolutely minimal English proficiency, or a test of the ability to do mathematics within an English-language educational environment, in which case the ability to comprehend word problems in English may be part of the construct. Similarly, those who define the construct should pay attention to how much of the vocabulary of the discipline in English is to be viewed as part of the assessment. Defining English proficiency as part of a target construct for an assessment in mathematics or science is neither right nor wrong. It is essential, however, that these definitions be explicit. Furthermore, even if English proficiency is part of the construct, take care to define what level of English proficiency should be expected of students. When defining the linguistic demands to be included in the construct, make an effort to include professionals with backgrounds in educating ELLs.

Domain of Knowledge and Skills

School boards are likely to have documented content standards for the subject area to be assessed. They may also provide performance standards and other documents that define the domain and their expectations for student achievement. Test developers should review these documents carefully and note the degree to which each standard calls for the ability to read, write, speak, or listen in English. Some disciplines use everyday language to refer to certain disciplinary concepts (e.g., the terms energy and transfer in physics), while specific language terms are used for other concepts (e.g., the terms mitosis and metamorphosis in biology).

Relative Weights of Tasks and Skills

The weight of a task or content category is generally decided by the importance of the assessed task relative to the other tasks on the test and the degree to which the tasks tap content described in the state's standards. Often tasks that require more time to complete (and usually longer responses written in English) receive more weight in an assessment. Such weightings may disadvantage ELLs; therefore, develop a careful rationale for weighting to apply to all students' responses, taking both content knowledge and language skills into account.

Assessment and Response Forms

Just like students in the general population, ELLs vary greatly as individuals. Therefore, no one type of presentation or response is optimal for all ELLs. It has to be, however, kept in mind that while developing assessment specifications that depends on the content area being assessed, large amounts of text make it less likely that ELLs will understand what is being asked of them. Some testing programs also rely on tasks that require extended written responses to assess students' depth of knowledge in the content areas. Where possible tasks that allow examinees to respond in ways that do not require long responses written in English, such as by drawing a diagram or other visual representation, as appropriate, should be included.

Providing feedback

Feedback is critical to the learning process. When most ELL students receive their assignments, tests or exams back, they carefully check for marks, comments or other feedback. The provision of as much helpful feedback as possible in writing and redirection to support resources and services as appropriate is likely to greatly assist learning. Consistency between markers and the use of marking guides can help achieve this. A brief assessment feedback session, where common strengths and weaknesses in student efforts are shared, can be useful.

Creation of Rubrics

The rubrics should make clear the role that English language skills should play in determining a score. (It may be helpful to have educators who are familiar with the performance of ELLs involved in the creation and review of rubrics). Generally, writing rubrics for content area tests should focus on content rather than on language use. Careful evaluation of the construct can help determine if, for example, writing an essay in English to provide evidence about a historical event would in fact require a certain degree of language skills. For assessments of English writing skills, the rubric should consider command of language (vocabulary, grammar, mechanics, etc.) but also make clear the role of critical thinking as distinct from fluency in English-language writing conventions.

It is very important to get the right kind of ELL classification for the accommodations to be equitable.

Abedi(2008) indicated that inappropriate classification (ELL, non- ELL) may place students who are at a higher level of English proficiency into remedial or special education programs and may deprive less proficient students of appropriate curriculum and assessment. Classifying language proficiency by setting a cut-off point on Standardised Achievement Tests is not a good idea as there are a large number of native English speakers who score below the cut-off point. Does that mean they are to be considered as ELL? (Abedi, 2008)

Standardised Achievement Tests

To commercially develop a standardised test that is fair and also cognitively challenging to linguistic minorities is a challenge(Solano- Flores and Trumbull, 2003; Valdés and Figueroa, 1994)

A major concern in the assessment of ELL students is the lack of Standardised Achievement Tests specifically designed to assess the content knowledge of these students (Stefanakis, 1998). Solano Flores and Trumbull (2003) found that language factors interact with test items. So an ELL student can misinterpret and misunderstand items that are linguistically complex.

There are studies that have shown that high performing ELLs performed lower than native English speakers on standardised tests, due to content knowledge not due to language ability ( Stevens et al., 2000). So Seigel (2006) indicated that there was a need to study the issue of how to know if a test is valid and how to measure performance in more ways.

An interesting finding was that both the groups (ELL and non-ELL) performed better when the tests were modified for the ELL students (Seigel, 2006).