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Standardized Tests for Diverse Classrooms? Rethinking Assessments

  ·  Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro

While a “majority-minority” student population has long been a reality in Chicago, 2011 marked the first time that minority students were the majority in kindergarten, first, second, and third grade classrooms across all of Illinois. A driving force behind this demographic shift are students who come from immigrant families,  hold a range of native- and English-language abilities, and are adapting to the U.S. school system. 

The United States’ increased use of standardized testing poses significant conundrums for this emerging student population. While there is no shortage of critiques on the overall merits of standardized testing, for those on their way to learning English, the reliability, validity, and fairness of such accountability measures are especially dubious.  After being in U.S. schools for three years or more, current education policy mandates that English Language Learners (ELLs) take standardized tests in English, regardless of their English language proficiency.  Research suggests that although such tests intend to assess content knowledge (e.g. of science or mathematical concepts), the results are often invalid, as many ELLs are required to take them before their English language skills are developed enough to comprehend the test questions.

While standardized tests present significant challenges for ELLs, simplistic arguments to entirely do away with them are neither politically feasible nor necessary, especially as new Common Core State Standards are set to be fully implemented in the 2014-2015 school year. The Latino Policy Forum recently hosted Dr. Margo Gottlieb, an internationally renowned author and English-language assessment expert, in a dialogue with Illinois’ education advocacy and philanthropic communities. One of the main questions of the day: How will Common Core drive assessment and what do data of ELLs tell us when the assessment of academic achievement is in English?

Gottlieb offered insights on how culturally and linguistically valid assessments are critical to accurately measuring the educational trajectory of ELLs.  Rather than relying on one source of data collection, however, she endorsed the use of a continuum of assessments: instructional, common instructional, interim, and standardized.

Instructional assessment and common instructional assessment, she conveyed, are created locally by educators to provide personal and school-level accountability.  Interim and standardized assessments, by contrast, are created by test developers and externally mandated with wider implications for district and state-level accountability.  The latter measures allow for little participation from teachers and school leaders and generally do not take students’ linguistic and cultural backgrounds into account. 

In her recent chapter in Breaking Through, Effective Instruction and Assessment for Reaching English Learners (2012), Gottlieb provides this helpful chart to distinguish different forms of achievement measures and their implications for ELLs.                 


Instructional and Common Instructional Assessment for Measuring Academic Achievement

Interim and Standardized Achievement Tests

Designed and developed specifically for English learners

Not necessarily designed, piloted, or field tested on sufficient numbers of English learners

Created by educators for educators

Crafted by test developers

Have strong ties to curriculum and are representative of instruction

Have loose ties to curriculum and instruction

Consist of performance-based tasks and projects with high levels of student interaction and original student work

Items often discrete and skill-based and may represent low levels of cognitive engagement

Represent what is valued in teaching and learning

May be removed from what is valued for teaching and learning

May possess validity, but not are necessarily highly reliable for language learners

May be highly reliable but are not necessarily valid for language learners

Needed to help balance educational accountability

Dominate educational accountability

As Common Core assessments come to the fore, assessments will hold schools accountable to the academic content knowledge of all students, ELLs and otherwise. As debate abounds around assessing ELLs, a window of opportunity is emerging for the educational community to consider the variety of assessments available and the relative weight attached to their influence.  A true measure of how students are progressing within an era of heightened standards and accountability will require the promotion of assessments that are valid for ELLs, considerate of classroom practice, and provide timely feedback for differentiated instruction. 

As classrooms across Illinois become increasingly diverse, elevating the use of the culturally and linguistically sensitive instruments available in common instructional assessment could provide an essential “counterbalance,” as Dr. Gottlieb contends, to the often inaccurate nature of standardized testing.

Posted In: K-3, Education