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Assessment Equity for ELs: Put Students Before Data

Written by: Judie Haynes
Published on: Apr 12, 2021

Student Testing
Image credit: arrowsmith2/Shutterstock

As the time for assessing K–12 English learners (ELs) with an English language proficiency test approaches, many teachers and parents are concerned by COVID-19 health considerations during the administering of standardized tests.

ELs  in over half of U.S. states are taking either the WIDA ACCESS or the ELPA-21. For both of these assessments of English language proficiency, students are required to go into school to take them. According the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), systemic health and social inequities have put many people from racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19. Most ELs and their families fall into these high-risk categories.

Directives From the U.S. Department of Education

In a letter to chief state school officers on 3 September 2020, the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) noted the importance of collecting data from statewide assessments, which includes the English language proficiency assessments. The department noted that states should not anticipate the USDOE waiving the assessment requirements for the 2020–2021 school year. The argument for this stance, outlined in this USDOE Fact Sheet (18 January 2021), is that

Statewide assessments are at the very core of the bipartisan agreement that forged the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). They are among the most reliable tools available to help us understand how children are performing in school. The data from assessments can help inform personalized support to children based on their individual needs and provide transparency about their progress.

U.S. President Biden’s new administration has not changed this point of view. The Fact Sheet Addendum has underscored that testing will take place:

Research shows that school closures this past spring disproportionately affected the most vulnerable students, widening disparities in achievement for low-income students, minority students, and students with disabilities. Almost every student experienced some level of disruption. Moving forward, meeting the needs of all students will require tremendous effort. To be successful, we must use data to guide our decision-making.

Teachers Agree That English Learners Have Not Had Equal Access to Education During the Pandemic

Many teachers in a recent #ELLCHAT discussion on this topic felt that testing ELs in school is not equitable because many of our students have not had the same opportunities during the pandemic as others to make academic progress. Some have not had the same access to devices, internet, or support of an adult family member to have equitable access to education from home.

According to an article by Beth Skelton and Lydia Breiseth on the Colorín Colorado website, “ELs may also not have had access to regular progress monitoring or assessments of their language skills. That’s why embedding instruction focused on students’ language skills across the curriculum and in all learning environments is so critical as we think about the rest of this school year and beyond.” Those teachers who favor the testing this spring with the WIDA ACCESS or ELPA21 do so because they feel ELs who are ready for exit from ESL programs will not be able to exit.

Teachers Concerned About English Learners’ Social-Emotional Well-Being

Educators are most concerned about their ELs’ social-emotional well-being during the testing period. In the aforementioned #ELLCHAT discussion, teachers cried, “Enough!” They are angry on the decisions made and feel unheard. This is exacerbated by the fact that ELs are obligated to take all of the tests that the general education students take as well as the English language proficiency test.

Additionally, because ELPA21 and WIDA Access assessments have not provided an English language proficiency test to ELs that can be taken remotely, students will need to go into schools physically to take the test. It’s important for educators and EL families to see that school districts will provide accommodations so that students will be safe when they come to school to take the test.

Standardized Testing of Academic Knowledge Will Also Be Assessed in the Spring

Although the USDOE has announced that standardized testing in reading and math will take place this spring, some states, like New Jersey, have applied for a waiver. Teachers want to spend their time instructing students in the content areas. The state’s largest teacher’s union, the New Jersey Education Association (2021) has said: “In a year filled with challenges and disruptions, the last thing our students need is to lose a single minute of instructional time to take a test that would not yield valid and reliable data or support their learning.”

TESOL Also Issued a Statement  on WIDA ACCESS Testing.

TESOL’s statement included the following:

TESOL recommends that state education agencies, in coordination with the U.S. Department of Education, postpone testing until a later date in the 2021 school year or waive testing requirements all together. Additionally, TESOL advocates can remind parents or guardians that participation in the ACCESS for ELLs exam is optional and that they have the right to opt their child out of the exam without any negative consequences.

Put Students Before Data!

Because ELs have double the work with two major standardized tests during the spring, state and national departments of education should be thinking of how this will affect their social-emotional well-being during the testing period. They should be putting students first.

I think that there are additional ways that ELs who are ready to exit can be informally assessed this spring:

  • Teachers of ELs and/or classroom teachers know who is ready to be exited from programs and can make an informed recommendation.
  • ELs’ academic grades can be added to the mix.
  • There is also the option to test ELs when they return to school in the fall of 2021.

Let’s make a decision that is best for our ELs. Put students before data!

References  (2021, February 19). N.J. school standardized testing should be waived this year due to COVID, state tells feds.

Skelton, E., & Breiseth, L. (2020) Teaching ELLs online: How to develop students’ language skills. Colorín Colorado.

TESOL International Association. (2020, December 21). TESOL statement on WIDA ACCESS for ELLs testing during the COVID-19 pandemic

U.S. Department of Education. (2020, May 18). Fact sheet: Providing services to English learners during the COVID-19 outbreak

U.S. Department of Education. (2021, January 18). Fact sheet: Providing services to English learners during the COVID-19 outbreak: Addendum