REaChing for the stars
Empowering English Language Learners
This is a hectic time of year for any ELL teachers in states that administer the annual WIDA ACCESS English language assessment. This standardized test, used by states in the WIDA consortium to monitor English language learner (ELL) progress from year to year for school accountability purposes, is time consuming and challenging for students. Recently, the test is administered via chromebooks or iPads, which means there are added layers of technology requirements and bugs. However, it also offers teachers an opportunity to see student progress in action and monitor student needs. This informs instruction and provides families and classroom teachers with useful information about individual language development.
Initially, when the WIDA test window rolls around, you will hear a bit of groaning around my school. There are materials to order and organize, trainings to brush up on, technology to procure, and most importantly, schedules for shared space and time to master. In a district where ELL teachers have more than 25 students on their caseloads, the test can take between four to six weeks. In kindergarten, the test is still administered one-on-one and takes between 45 and 60 minutes per test. This interrupts normal ELL support services and means that ELL teachers live and breathe ACCESS for this time period. We say the same script over and over again, encourage students to do their best and to work through things they don’t understand. It can be overwhelming for everyone involved.
I have sat in on test review sessions with WIDA, and I know there are many areas of concern for test item writers and reviewers. Most of these center on potential bias, and ensuring that test items provide adequate verbal and visual content information so that students are focused on language as they work through sections that test skills in all four domains: listening, reading, speaking and writing. While the test is meant to be adaptive, there are multiple choice items that students sometimes accidentally select correctly without understanding. This means students who aren’t necessarily able are often put into tiers above their level of proficiency and confidence. On the other hand, capable and even fluent students can often be anxious about the new test format and not perform at their best, and they are put into tier below their ability level. As a test administrator, and teacher, watching this unfold can be frustrating.
In addition, in my observation, I find the reading test far to difficult for an average first grader. Students are asked to read at a level that is above what is expected of them in first grade at this time. Text is small and often lacks visual support. It is rare that in first grade students are asked to read without visual support, or read text heavy paragraphs without teacher support. Unfortunately, even when students are placed into a lower tier there is no way for them to show their knowledge of sound-letter correspondence or growing sight word vocabularies. Most students faced with a clump of text they can’t read just guess an answer and move on. This means scores don’t accurately reflect student ability. Can you imagine if you were taking a foreign language reading test and didn’t know 90% or more of the text? You’d probably do the same. It is the defeated look on their faces that worries me, and I always try to say “You are a reader! You are where you need to be, don’t worry about this!”
WIDA states that the ACCESS test “serves as one of multiple measures used to determine whether students are prepared to exit English language support programs.” This is true, and in my own teaching I maintain data of student progress not just on the ACCESS test, but on grade level assessments including reading benchmarks, wordlists, math tests, etc. Still, I wonder how the test’s language and literacy expectations can be so far removed from what is considered proficient in the classroom. Is our school so different from others across the nation?
Despite all of my concerns and frustrations, I do find value in the testing process. In kindergarten, as I administer the test on-one-on, I get unique insight into each and every student’s language development. I get to hear how much they’ve learned from the beginning of the year. I get to listen carefully as they complete test items and identify the things that they still need help and practice with. This year, in grades one through five, we also decided to administer the speaking section of the online ACCESS one-on-one to allow students space so they don’t feel nervous about speaking in front of other students and there is no interference between devices in our small testing rooms. Similarly to kindergarten, I’ve been able to learn a lot about where my students are at. This knowledge helps me to form pull-out service groups that best meet the needs of my students. I can use this information to justify and expand on my language curriculum. I can also consult with teachers and help them know what their students might need extra help with in the mainstream classroom.
I think educators who are in classrooms with kids will always be baffled by a “one size fits all” test, because we are trained and encouraged to see students as individuals and meet them where they are at. Standardized tests serve their purpose to compare among students and examine student growth overtime, but they are only one peice of the puzzle, and I wish that other factors could be more clearly taken into consideration on a district, state and even federal level. There are some places, like Chicago, that are trying to figure this out. In the meantime, I do my best to power through testing season, and enjoy the rare one-on-one time with learners.
I'm Sarah Forbes. I'm the