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Early Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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The Next Generation of Tests for Young English Language Learners

Published:  March 1, 2012

Properly determining a young English Language Learner’s proficiency in English is crucial to putting that student on the right track in school. A child who is placed in a regular classroom too soon is bound to struggle. But a child who is kept in a program for ELL students for too long is wasting time that could be spent moving ahead in math, science, or other academic subjects.

Over the next three years, a group will be developing a new set of assessments for English Language Learners that it hopes will be both accurate and developmentally appropriate for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. (Unfortunately, pre-K versions are not funded through this grant, though WIDA is exploring how to create better assessments for pre-K students as well.) The intent is to give schools better options for evaluating students’ progress so that they can be matched with the instruction they need.

The World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment Consortium (WIDA), housed at the University of Wisconsin, makes English Language Proficiency tests for 29 states. It will partner with several other organizations, including the Center for Applied Linguistics, to develop the tests, according to Jesse Markow, director of communications & business development at WIDA who recently talked with Early Ed Watch about what’s to come. The project is funded by a $10.5 million competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

These new tests, called ASSETS, will differ from most current English proficiency tests, Markow said. They will align with the Common Core standards in terms of the content and the level of cognitive demand of the assessment. The new assessments will also be technology-based, though WIDA hasn’t decided yet what kind of technology (computers? tablets?) it will use.

For students in kindergarten through second grade, it’s likely that the “technology” component will probably be used by the test-giver, not the student. For example, the test-giver could administer a test to a child while using a computer or tablet that has an adaptive test on it, so as a child answer questions and the test-giver enters them into the computer, the questions get harder or easier based on the child’s English proficiency level, enabling the test-giver to hone in closely on a child’s English abilities.

It’s important to note that for younger children, these assessments will not be “bubble tests” or other pen and paper assessments. WIDA officials say they will be delivered by a trained test-giver, who sits with a child and uses tools like story boards and manipulatives to communicate with the child, then record his or her answer to questions.

The assessments won’t show up in classrooms until the 2015-16 school year. So there will be several years to learn more about their development. (For those interested in the more technical specifications for ASSETS, the K-12 Center at ETS recently released a primer, here.) Will they be a smarter alternative to what schools are piecing together right now? Will there be any connections to pre-kindergarten students and the screening tools that may be used in those classrooms? With the population of ELLs continuing to grow in early education classrooms, these questions could become more urgent in the coming years.

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