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How to Improve Nonverbal Ability Tests for ELLs

A woman who just earned a Ph.D. in educational psychology from the University of Iowa explored in her dissertation a perplexing question: why don't English-language learners do as well on ability tests as students who are fluent in English, even when the tests are nonverbal?

It's an important question because I've heard some educators say that giving nonverbal ability tests to ELLs is one way to ensure they have a chance to be accepted into gifted and talented programs.

But Joni Marie Lakin says in her dissertation that researchers have found that even the use of nonverbal tests doesn't eliminate the differences in scores between ELL and non-ELL students. The gap in performance isn't erased even when both groups come from the same cultural and socioeconomic background.

Lakin's research is about how test directions for nonverbal ability tests affect the scores of ELLs and non-ELLs. The sample included about 1,000 students, all 1st and 2nd graders, in 46 classrooms in a large suburban school district. But only 126 of the students were ELLs, which Lakin considers to be a limitation of her study.

Her goal was to identify types of test directions that would have "optimal features" that all students—including ELLs—could understand, Lakin told me in a phone interview today.

Lakin concludes in her paper that the choice of practice items and feedback are crucial in designing test directions that work for young students. Among her findings are that good test directions should engage young students right away in guessing an answer rather than having them listen to extensive directions.

It's also helpful for students to have a sufficient number of examples. Lakin observes that many test directions offer only basic examples that give insight into the first few items on a test, not a range of items on the test. She also found that using videos to provide directions can be problematic for young students.

But she said the gap in performance between ELLs and non-ELLs on the ability tests can't be closed just with adjustments to test directions. "I was hoping idealistically that these small differences in test directions would make a big difference, that comprehension was the problem," she told me. "There's no quick fix."

A subset of ELLs, she added, improved their performance on long forms of tests after taking short practice tests. So she says ELLs might be helped if test developers posted practice tests online.

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