As well as learning academically, today’s students are learning their place in the world, who they are, and how to make and nurture friendships. They have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which upended socializing and learning. Now, imagine being a child in the early stages of English language learning.
English language learners (ELLs) account for between 3.8 and 5 million students in our school system (Langdon and Wiig, 2009; Kena et al., 2016; Sanchez, 2017); the overwhelming majority of these ELL students speak Spanish at home as their first language. School districts offer a variety of programs to support these students, but there remain significant issues, particularly in assessment.
Due to the limited development of crucial, validated Spanish-language assessments, the identification of ELL students who would benefit from specialized intervention and educational services suffers from issues of both under- and over-representation (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2017). Many ELL students are inappropriately classified as having academic disabilities, in part related to limitations in assessments (Garcia-Joslin et al., 2016).
In parallel with academic assessment, there is a welcome drive toward the importance of measuring students’ social–emotional competence skills and well-being in schools. Not surprisingly, there is a gaping absence of technically sound tools for measuring social–emotional skills (e.g., Elias, 2019) and well-being among the ELL population (Halle et al., 2014; Rosselli et al., 2010). Apart from third-party rating scales, there exist fewer than a handful of Spanish-language child social–emotional competence assessments (e.g., Social Skills Improvement System (Gresham and Elliott, 2008) and the Bar-On EQI-Youth (Bar-On and Parker, 2000)).
When Spanish-language tools are available, educators and practitioners are at times faced with the challenge of how to approach assessing ELL students who are developing in two languages. Almost ten years ago, Halle and colleagues (2014) made a very explicit plea for the creation of more child-based social–emotional competence assessments for ELL students in home languages, to complement third-party reports. Yet the assessment industry has been slow to adequately meet this need.
Best practice suggests that we not just translate but adapt assessments into other languages, ensuring cultural appropriateness and validity (e.g., Arestad et al., 2017; Barrueco et al., 2012; Cheung et al., 2017; Meera et al., 2015; Peña, 2007; Smith et al., 2017). The transadaptation process should be professionally conducted via research to ensure accurate measurement of targeted skills (Arestad et al., 2017).
Without such tools, educators and practitioners miss opportunities to properly identify students’ strengths and challenges, monitor social–emotional skill development, evaluate the effectiveness of social–emotional learning curriculum for ELL students, and assess progress toward state social–emotional learning standards. As with academic risks, there are risks associated with mischaracterizing a social–emotional learning challenge because of a language barrier.
Our goals are to highlight the challenges facing ELL students, educators, and practitioners; the need for valid and reliable alternate language assessments or adequate language-routing plans for assessment; and how the absence of alternate language assessment further confounds mental health evaluation in ELL students.
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Sanchez, C. (2017). “English Language Learners: How your state is doing.” National Public Radio. www.npr.org/sections/ed/2017/02/23/512451228/5-million-english-language-learners-a-vast-pool-of-talent-at-risk
Smith, L., Malcolm-Smith, S., and de Vries, P. J. (2017). “Translation and Cultural Appropriateness of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule-2 in Afrikaans.” Autism, 21(5), 552–563. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361316648469
Dr. Nicole Russo-Ponsaran is an associate professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Rush University Medical Center and the research director at Rush NeuroBehavioral Center. Her research spans neuroscience to psychosocial behavioral research, assessment to intervention, and nonclinical to clinical populations. She is nationally recognized for her English and Spanish-language social–emotional assessments.
Dr. Sandra Barrueco is professor of psychology at the Catholic University of America, where she directs the clinical psychology doctoral program as well as the university-wide Latin American and Latino studies interdisciplinary program. Dr. Barrueco’s expertise centers on assessment, methodological, and intervention approaches for young ethnically and linguistically diverse children and families.
Dr. Dominika Winiarski is a licensed clinical psychologist and the director of counseling and psychological services at the College of Lake County, Illinois. Her research and clinical work intersect to address disparities in mental health across various settings including healthcare and education, as well as within the community more generally.