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How English Learners Experience and Perceive Testing Supports

New research: How English learners experience and perceive testing supports. Joyce Schnieders, research scientist, and Joann Moore, senior research scientist.
By: Joyce Schnieders, research scientist, and Joann Moore, senior research scientist

As part of ACT’s mission to help people achieve education success and ensure that accessible and equitable opportunities are available to all students, we offer language supports for English learners – students whose first or most fluent language is not English. Research shows that these supports can help reduce students’ language barriers and allow them to demonstrate their knowledge and skills more accurately. However, these supports will only benefit test-takers who use them.

To better understand how students use and perceive these supports, we surveyed English learners who took the ACT test to learn about their experiences when taking the ACT as well as other tests at school. The research revealed five main takeaways and important opportunities for ensuring that the students who could benefit from these supports are able to access them.

  1. Some English learners use language supports for school tests and the ACT, but many do not.
    Since 2017, ACT has provided four language supports to all eligible examinees: extra time equal to 1 1/2 the standard allotted time, testing in a small group or familiar environment, test directions in the student’s native language, and word-to-word bilingual dictionaries with no definitions. However, only 37% of surveyed students who qualified for the supports used them when taking the ACT, with 27% using one support and 10% using two or more. The most commonly used support was extra time, followed by testing in a small group.

    Surveyed students were more likely to use supports during tests at school: 62% reported using at least one. The two most common supports were extra time and small breaks.

  2. English learners who do use supports find them useful.
    Most students said the language supports they used at school were extremely or very useful. The two supports they found most useful were test content written in their native language and extra time on the test.

    Similarly, nearly all students considered the supports they used on the ACT to be useful. Extra time was rated as the most useful, with 83% of students calling it extremely or very useful. Testing in a small group and test directions in the students’ native language were also considered extremely or very useful by about three in four students.

  3. Many English learners take the ACT without supports because they lack information.
    Among the 63% of surveyed students who could have, but did not, use language supports when taking the ACT, nearly half said they didn’t think they needed the supports. But four in 10 said they were not aware of the available supports, and one in four said they didn’t know they were eligible. Many English learners from populations that are traditionally underserved – including students who are Black, from low-income families, or whose parents did not attend college – reported not using supports because they lacked information.

    A small number of students also cited perceived negative consequences, such as their use of supports being reported to colleges. However, ACT does not provide any information to colleges about whether students use language supports or other accommodations.

  4. English learners want more supports during school testing.
    Two-thirds of surveyed students said there was at least one support that they wanted but could not get during school testing. It is likely that some students did not use supports at school because they were unavailable, possibly due to issues such as inadequate funding or shortages of teachers with expertise on English learners.

  5. Some other school support programs for English learners were disrupted by the pandemic.
    Another key to improving English learners’ language skills and academic knowledge is to provide targeted supports and services at school. Our survey also examined use of the three major programs available at schools, as noted below.

    The results showed that more than half of students (56%) had received English learner instruction in an English learner classroom, known as the “pull-out” approach where English learners are taught together in separate classrooms, or in a regular classroom (59%), known as the “pull-in” approach. Additionally, 44% had received bilingual instruction in content classes such as math or science. However, the COVID-19 pandemic caused about 17% of these programs to be temporarily stopped, and about one in four to be halted entirely. When it comes to online learning, which most students experienced to at least some extent during the pandemic, only 39% of English learners said they received supports.
Given the importance of targeted supports for developing language skills and increasing the academic performance of English learners, it is vital that students and educators have the resources they need to ensure that students are successful in becoming proficient in English and achieving college and career readiness. Looking ahead, there are several ways schools and large-scale assessment developers can better support English learners.

For schools, we recommend:
  • Regularly collecting information through surveys and assessments to understand English learners’ needs and wants for supports.
  • Offering individualized supports for English learners.
  • Providing professional development for teachers.
For large-scale assessment developers, we recommend:
  • Advocating for the available language supports, using different channels to inform students, families, and educators about the options and eligibility criteria.
  • Reaching out to English learners from populations that are traditionally underserved to learn about their challenges in terms of requesting or using the supports, help them understand their options, and guide them through the request process.
  • Addressing any potential misconceptions about what information is provided to colleges in student score reports.
  • Adding additional language support options in the future.
Taking these steps would help ensure that all students have an accessible and equitable experience when engaging with assessments on their journey to education and career success.