Originally posted on Colorin Colorado by Diane Staehr Fenner


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Three strategies can help teachers more accurately assess their English language learners.

At a recent professional development institute in a school district in New York State, I led content-area teachers new to teaching English language learners (ELLs) through a geometry lesson entirely in German. I first lectured to them without providing any scaffolds, and then I gradually included visuals and a bilingual glossary in my instruction. Later, I had them complete a classroom assessment in German using the supports provided, working in pairs, and speaking in English. Reflecting on his experience, one middle school teacher noted he suddenly realized why his beginning-level Nepalese student seemed so tired at the end of the day. This exercise gave teachers a small sense of how flawed content assessment can be for ELLs when students are not yet fluent in the language.

Why the Urgency?

Research has clearly demonstrated that assessments designed mainly for native English speakers may not be as reliable and valid for ELLs (Abedi, 2006). In fact, average scores for ELLs on the 2013 reading and math National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in grades 4, 8, and 12 were significantly lower than average scores for native speakers of English, and the gap in scores widened with increases in grade level (Office of English Language Acquisition, 2015).

My work with ELLs and their educators is based in an advocacy framework in which the concept of scaffolded advocacy—or providing just the right amount of advocacy on the basis of students’ strengths and needs—is crucial to support their academic achievement (Staehr Fenner, 2014). And nowhere does advocacy for ELLs play a more important role than in assessment.

Compared with fluent speakers of English, ELLs are held accountable on more assessment measures and spend more time being assessed. Title III accountability under No Child Left Behind requires ELLs to make progress in learning English; attain English language proficiency (ELP); and learn academic content. In addition to taking part in content testing, all English learners must also take annual ELP or English language development assessments, whether or not they receive language support services.

The three strategies that follow can help educators collaboratively advocate for equity in assessments for their English language learners.

Strategy 1. Choose appropriate accommodations for state assessments.

Testing accommodations give English language learners a greater chance to demonstrate what they know and can do on content tests (Staehr Fenner, 2014). A few broad points to keep in mind:

  • Accommodations policies differ by state, so be sure to check your state’s guidelines.
  • Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium uses the term “designated supports” to refer to tools ELLs can use. (It uses “accommodations” to define supports for students with disabilities.)
  • Although accommodation options for ELLs may be plentiful, offering the full range of them to a student isn’t usually beneficial and can even be detrimental.
  • When choosing content test accommodations, consider the student’s literacy development in English as well as in the home language. Students with strong home-language literacy skills may benefit from bilingual dictionaries and translations of the assessment. Students with interrupted schooling or weak home-language literacy skills tend to do well with oral supports in English. Other factors to consider are the student’s age, emotional needs, and time he or she has spent in U.S. schools. Some students may feel self-conscious about using accommodations in front of students who don’t need them; they may feel stigmatized as a result.

There are multiple ways of categorizing and naming a student’s level of English proficiency. Many states belong to English language proficiency consortia (for example, WIDA and ELPA21). For the purposes of this article, let’s consider ELLs at the more generic beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels.

At the beginning level, ELLs have the greatest need for accommodations but may face bigger challenges in using some accommodations effectively. For example, the sheer number of unknown English words would preclude a beginner ELL from effectively using a bilingual word-to-word dictionary. You can provide oral supports, such as a read-aloud of both the directions and the test, in lieu of less effective written supports. In some cases, you might provide a home-language translation of the directions and the test.

At the intermediate level, consider offering a state-approved bilingual word-to-word dictionary if ELLs are literate in their home language, and give them additional time to consult it. You could also allow students to request that selected portions of the text be read aloud.

At the advanced level, ELLs need the fewest accommodations. They may still benefit from a bilingual word-to- word dictionary if they are literate in their home language, as well as extra time to use it. (See Dalton & Shafer Willner, 2012, for additional guidance on the types of assessment accommodations to use for ELLs.)

Deciding on Accommodations: A Case Study

Ahmet is a 9-year-old boy attending 3rd grade in a suburban elementary school. He was born in the United States to Syrian parents. His school uses an inclusive model of instruction, with a grade-level teacher and a teacher of English as a second language (ESL) co-teaching English language arts. Ahmet also receives small-group instruction from an ESL teacher three times a week.

Ahmet is at an intermediate English language proficiency level and lives in a state where the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessment is administered. He has trouble decoding longer words in English and has weak spelling skills in the language. Ahmet’s English speaking and listening skills are stronger than his skills in reading and writing. Although he is comfortable speaking Arabic in social situations, Ahmet’s literacy skills in Arabic are weak. His parents don’t read to him in Arabic; they want him to learn English quickly.

  • What strengths does Ahmet bring in English? In his home language? (In both English and Arabic, he is stronger orally than in other areas of literacy.)
  • Which accommodations would you recommend for Ahmet? (He might benefit from having test directions read aloud to him—and repeated—in Arabic. Use of this accommodation would require an interpreter and a separate testing location.)
  • How would you incorporate these accommodations in classroom instruction and assessment? (To ensure that Ahmet is used to having test directions read aloud and repeated in Arabic, coordinate with an interpreter to regularly read and repeat classroom instruction and assessment directions.)

Role of Collaboration and Advocacy

One important step a school or district can take to advocate for more equitable assessments for their English language learners is to form a committee that includes the ESL teacher, content-area teacher(s), guidance counselor, and even the student and the student’s parent or caregiver. Because it can be detrimental for an ELL to receive unfamiliar accommodations (such as a bilingual dictionary) for the first time on a content test, committee decisions about accommodations should be made at the beginning of the school year so the student gets used to the accommodations. The committee can meet throughout the year to track the utility of the accommodations and make adjustments as needed.

Strategy 2: Prepare students for computer-based assessments.

As content and English language proficiency assessments transition to computer-based platforms, we can’t overlook the digital divide that exists between students whose families can afford to provide technology in the home and those who lack such technology. Of note, two-thirds of ELLs nationwide come from low-income homes (National Education Association, 2008).

In addition to possibly having limited access to technology, ELLs might not be fully literate in the use of the technology that’s necessary to navigate the test platform. For example, students may be familiar with mobile devices but not with certain tasks on a desktop computer, such as clicking with a mouse and dragging numbers or typing an extended response.

Also, English language learners arrive in school at all points of the school year. In many cases, they still need to take content or English language proficiency tests even though they may not have received the training on the test platform that other students were given. Regardless of their arrival dates, ELLs will need to understand all the online test features and know how to use them. The PARCC student tutorials are in English with no built-in scaffolds to help ELLs navigate the platform. Smarter Balanced’s student tutorial offers an option for Spanish, but not other languages.

What Students Need to Know

The following guidelines will help ensure that English language learners focus on test items instead of getting distracted by the platform:

  • Teach terms ELLs will need to know to navigate the platform. For example, when considering the Smarter Balanced tutorial, you might discuss such terms as item, passage, navigation tools, drop-down, zoom out/in, and save. Create a word wall of the terms, providing their meaning, an image, and a home language translation if possible.
  • Give ELLs ample time to practice. After you’ve pretaught terms, have students apply the terms by working through the test platform together as a class. Practice varying item types. Make sure students know how to use the accommodations or support features available to them, such as text-to- speech in the home language or pop-up glossaries. Use a think-aloud to model how to answer a question, including use of accommodations where available. For example, when working through a Smarter Balanced mathematics practice item, you might share your thought process while using the bilingual glossary before ultimately choosing the correct response. ELLs could then work in pairs, noting their questions—on both the platform and the content—to discuss with the class.
  • Develop ELLs’ keyboarding skills. Provide keyboarding instruction so ELLs are not slowed down by the act of typing. ELLs who are used to an alphabet in a language other than English, as well as to that language’s corresponding keyboard, may face unique challenges typing in English.

Role of Collaboration and Advocacy

It’s important for educators to work together at the building level to do a needs analysis of where ELLs could use additional technological support. Teachers should collaborate to choose accommodations for computer- based tests and find a time and place for ELLs to practice using those accommodations.

In addition, a collaborative team could make certain that parents of their English language learners are aware of both test requirements and the platform. For example, computer-based testing could be the topic of an ELL parent meeting either in school or in a location convenient for parents, such as a community center or place of worship.

Strategy 3. Use English language proficiency scores to plan instruction.

Depending on your district’s testing window, your ELLs may soon take their annual English language proficiency test. Teachers and administrators can use the data on score reports to design appropriate learning tasks and differentiate instruction for students at different levels of proficiency. In addition, teachers can collaborate to align the choice of accommodations on state content assessments with students’ ELP levels and design classroom assessments appropriate to the student’s level of proficiency. Teachers can also use ELP assessment data to communicate the students’ progress from year to year to students and their families; additionally, they can share students’ areas of linguistic strengths and needs with other educators. ELP assessment results can be used as one data point among many in gauging ELLs’ progress and planning for instruction.

In some recent ongoing professional development with school districts, I’ve worked with content-area and ESL teachers whose administrators brought the groups together for regular collaboration. We’ve shared sample ELP score reports with them. In most cases, it’s the first time content-area teachers have seen an ELP report, and it’s been an eye-opening experience for them. Specifically, it’s been helpful for content teachers to see how the ELL performed in each language domain (speaking, listening, reading, and writing). In one sample report, the student’s weakest domain was in writing, so teachers determined strategies to support the student’s writing skills within and across content areas.

Hunting for Answers

To help familiarize teachers with the features of ELP score reports, I recommend a scavenger hunt. Using either an actual student’s report or a sample score report found online, teachers can search for the answer to such questions as, What is the student’s grade level? Which domains of language were assessed? How is the student’s overall proficiency level determined from the assessment components? How can you use this information to collaboratively plan for instruction? The ESL teacher can take a lead role in facilitating the conversation.

Teachers can use the data to determine the language domains most in need of development and then focus instruction on these areas. They can also use this information to select appropriate accommodations for content testing. I suggest that educators take a longitudinal look at each student’s ELP scores to see whether the student is making the expected progress in acquiring English.

Role of Collaboration and Advocacy

TESOL International Association (2013) contends that with the implementation of challenging content standards, ESL teachers are called on to assume new leadership roles as experts, advocates, and consultants. Serving as facilitator of a discussion about ELP scores is just one example of this more specialized role. ESL teachers can also let content-area teachers know when score reports become available and set up a time to collaboratively interpret the results. Similarly, content-area teachers can include ESL teachers in conversations around analysis of their ELLs’ content and ELP assessment data and in planning for instruction.

For their part, administrators can demonstrate their commitment to this success by setting aside a regular time and place for collaborative planning to support ELLs. By doing so, they set the tone in their buildings that collaboration is crucial to the success of English language learners.


Abedi, J. (2006). Psychometric issues in the ELL assessment and special education eligibility. Teachers College Record, 108(11), 2282–2303.

Dalton, G., & Shafer Willner, L. (2012). ELL accommodation assignment protocol created for the 2012 DC OSSE testing accommodations manual. Washington, DC: District of Columbia Office of the State Superintendent.

National Education Association. (2008). English language learners face unique challenges (NEA Policy Brief). Retrieved from

Office of English Language Acquisition. (2015). English learners (ELS) and NAEP (OLEA Fast Facts). Retrieved from

Staehr Fenner, D. (2014). Advocating for English learners: A guide for educators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

TESOL International Association. (2013). Implementing the Common Core State Standards for English learners: The changing role of the ESL teacher. Alexandria, VA: Author. Retrieved from

Diane Staehr Fenner