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ELLs and Assessments Pegged to the Common-Core Standards

The two consortia creating content tests as part of the Common Core State Standards Initiative are beginning to take small steps to consider the needs of English-language learners, I learned in reporting for an article published in this week's print edition of Education Week.

The SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, for instance, has received a grant of $9.95 million in addition to its basic test-development grant to translate its math test into American Sign Language, Spanish, and three other languages yet to be determined. The consortium plans to create an advisory committee on English-language learners, Joe Willhoft, the executive director of the consortium, told me in an interview.

I asked if any of the 80 people selected for the consortium's work groups are specialists in issues affecting English-language learners. He said, "no," but mentioned that Jamal Abedi, an education professor at the University of California, Davis, is a member of a technical advisory committee for the consortium. Abedi is definitely a heavyweight in the field of assessing English-language learners.

In fact, Abedi has written an excellent primer on the challenges of including English-language learners in content tests in a chapter of a new book, Cultural Validity in Assessment, recently published by Routledge. In the chapter, which I just finished reading, he stresses that ELLs perform substantially better on assessments written in clear English. In other words, they are easily stumped in showing what they know about academic content if the language of the tests is too complex.

Abedi says that assessments in students' native languages can have an important role. But he also says that ELLs who are instructed in English do better on content assessments in English than tests in their native language, even if they have a very high level of proficiency in their native language. The chapter includes some recommendations for teachers of ELLs, such as to recognize the limitations of what can be inferred about an ELL's test score on an assessment that has been designed for native speakers of English.

The other test-development consortium creating content tests aligned with the common-core academic standards is the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC. The group was poised at the time my article went to press on Friday to announce members of what it calls "technical working groups." Laura M. Slover, the senior vice president of Achieve, and the project manager for her nonprofit's work with the consortium, said several well-known experts on ELLs are on the list. At this point, that consortium doesn't have any plans to translate assessments into other languages, according to Slover.

Both consortia said they are using principles of universal design to ensure that test items can be accessed by ELLs and other students with special learning needs. Both consortia are working toward creating common policies and procedures across their member states for test accommodations.

Neither Willhoft or Slover pointed to anything concrete their groups have done to create a "common" definition for English-language learners, which is a requirement attached to the grants.

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