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Making Testing Accessible for English Learners (And Why We Should)

All students deserve equitable opportunities to demonstrate what they know, to help teachers teach, and to help themselves succeed. To deliver on that proposition, one size does not fit all: fair and equitable assessment must be inclusive.

There will always be some students with characteristics, separate from their academic capabilities, which prevent fair assessment when unaddressed. For example, a blind student would typically not be well served with a standard test administration. But when that same student is allowed an accommodation or support that they are familiar with, such as braille or a screen reader, the playing field is evened, granting the student a fair opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge. After all, it’s a math test, not an eye test.

The same principle applies to English Learners. These are students for whom English is not their first language or their strongest language. Furthermore, English Learners present difficulties understanding, speaking, reading and/or writing in English, which, for the moment, prevents them from meeting K-12 academic standards in an English-only classroom.

English Learners make up 10 percent of the United States’ K-12 student population. Seventy-six percent of these learners are native speakers of Spanish. It is estimated that English Learners need four to seven years to become proficient in English. During this time of learning and transition, these students are often only exempted from assessments such as state accountability tests for their first assessment period. But test accommodations can help English Learners bridge the gap while they work to become more proficient in English.

Accommodations for English Learners increase test validity (allowing a test to measure what it is supposed to measure), reduce construct-irrelevant variance, and promote equity and inclusion. Common types of accommodations for English Learners include: test instructions in the student’s native language; an available bilingual glossary; alternative language editions (e.g. a translation and adaptation of the test into Spanish); and a time extension (to allow students more time to read and comprehend the questions in English, since reading and comprehension in a second language takes more time).

Whether an English Learner can or should use a particular accommodation on a specific test will depend on a variety of factors, such as the type of test, the subject matter, their current level of English proficiency, their teacher’s recommendations, state laws, and available resources. However, it is important that testing accommodations continue to be made available for the students who need them.

I invite you to think about what else can be done to help level the playing field for K-12 English Learners. At 10 percent of the student population and growing, it’s crucial that we serve them well during their years in education.

Kenneth Richard Clark is Chief Operations Officer at Responsive Translation Services, a New Jersey-based provider of high-stakes translation and educational services.

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Stay tuned for upcoming ACT research on the impact of English Learner supports on ACT test scores.