If you are an educator, chances are that you have had or will have a student who is learning English as an additional language. Some of these multilingual students are eligible for language support services if their English proficiency limits their access to learning academic content. Districts typically have specific policies for identifying these students. Once these students are identified, by federal law, they are required to take an annual language proficiency assessment to confirm their eligibility for additional support until they are considered English proficient. Language proficiency assessments are used to monitor eligibility and language growth over time with variations from state to state. Some states, like California, New York, and Texas, have developed their own assessments. However, most states join consortia, like ELPA 21 or WIDA, for enhanced support.
Language proficiency assessments like the ones described here are considered summative assessments; in other words, they provide information on the learning that has already occurred and are typically used to meet policy requirements. However, while the main purpose of these assessments is accountability, the data from them can be used to enhance the language development of students. Here are some ideas of how to use the data from language proficiency assessments:
Identify/Monitor Language Goals for Your Students
Data from language proficiency assessments can help identify specific areas of focus for schools or districts. Whether you work as part of a leadership team or a professional learning community, collect data specific to the various language domains available through your assessment: listening, speaking, reading, writing, and any other composite scores available, like literacy, comprehension, and overall scores for all of your students.
- Do not use the information from your language proficiency assessment as the sole data point when making decisions. Always try to collect other data and triangulate all of your points of data.
- Remember that language proficiency assessments show the performance of students at one point in time, so they do not account for average performance of individual students. However, when aggregated, they can provide one perspective on how groups of students are performing.
Monitor Language Development Over Time
In the same way that language proficiency assessments provide you with information about language performance at a point in time for a group of students, if the same data is collected over time, you can look for patterns in the language development of your students.
Considerations in Using Data from Language Proficiency Assessments to Monitor Growth:
- Use the right score: Some scores from language proficiency assessments are better when trying to identify language growth across time. Raw scores, for example, are not appropriate when comparing scores from two different test forms or students. This is because typically a raw score does not take into account the difficulty of the items on the test. In some of these assessments, like ACCESS for ELLs, proficiency levels are interpretations of the scale scores that account for the grade level of the student; therefore, those levels may not be appropriate when looking at growth over time. The best score to use from ACCESS for ELL is the scale score, because its calculation accounts for the difficulty of the items, but it is not specific to grade level.
- Use multiple scores: Triangulate data from multiple sources related to language growth to get more comprehensive and useful information about your students’ language use, including classroom observations across various contexts and situations.
- Involve others: Make sure that you use language from classroom observations, but also from informal spaces, extracurricular activities, and home, whenever possible and available.
Using Data from Language Proficiency Assessments to Guide Instruction
While data from language proficiency assessments provides good information for goals over time or large groups of students, this data can also be used in other ways to guide teaching and learning. Enhancing the use of academic language across different contexts provides students better access to academic content and with increased opportunities to participate meaningfully in teaching and learning. For children and youth who are multilingual, and for whom English may represent a barrier to demonstrating what they know and can do, language proficiency assessments are an additional tool. Language proficiency assessments provide opportunities for students and their educators to focus on the development of language, serving as models, sources of data, and catalysts for a more intentional education.
This article originally appeared in Language Magazine in September, 2016. At the time, Mariana Castro, PhD was director of academic language and literacy initiatives at WIDA Consortium, Wisconsin Center for Education Research, University of Wisconsin-Madison. For more information about the uses of ACCESS for ELLs, visit https://wida.wisc.edu.