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Testing Groups Work on Accessibility for English-Learners

The rollout of common assessments to measure how students are mastering the Common Core State Standards is now less than two years away, and the two groups of states working to design the tests are ramping up efforts to ensure English-learners and students with disabilities won't be left behind.

An overview of the testing accessibility and accommodation work underway at both the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers, or PARCC, was a major feature of an event in Washington yesterday that focused on the common-core standards and English-language learners. The American Federation of Teachers organized the panel, the second such event that the national teachers' union has held on how the new standards will impact ELLs and their teachers.

Magda Chia, who is the director of support for under-represented students for the Smarter Balanced states, described the various technical advisory committees and other panels of experts working with the consortia to help guide their policymaking and decisionmaking when it comes to providing the various supports that ELLs may need in using the assessment system they are developing. The group is using a special tool developed by researchers at the University of Wisconsin that can grade test items by their language complexity and give test designers a clear picture of how they can make the language more accessible for an ELL without diluting the content being tested.

Smarter Balanced is also asking teachers to write and review test items, including those with expertise in working with ELLs, Chia said. Research is also under way, Chia said, to get a more "fine-grained" picture of the ELL subgroup, which despite its great diversity, has mostly been treated as a monolithic group in both assessment and accountability. For example, the consortia wants to break down the subgroup to look at how long ELLs have been in in the United States (most are native-born), and to pinpoint the various stages of proficiency. The consortium is also collaborating with Jamal Abedi, a researcher at the University of California, Davis, on his study of how a "read-aloud" accommodations impact ELLs' performance on reading assessments.

Work around translation of Smarter Balanced's math assessment is also under way, Chia said. This coming spring, the consortia will conduct a pilot of the assessment that uses customized pop-up glossaries in Spanish on test items for several grade levels. The group is looking for districts with large numbers of English-learners who are native Spanish speakers to participate in the pilot, she said.

Smarter Balanced will also be doing a full pilot-testing of both the ELA and math assessments in the spring and will need 1 million students to participate, Chia said.

"We need ELLs to be in those chairs taking the test," she said.

At PARCC, similar efforts are unfolding, said Danielle Griswold, a program associate for Achieve and a member of the consortium's policy, research and design unit.

Like Smarter Balanced, PARCC has a number of expert panels and committees advising them on how to make their assessment system work for ELLs. The group is applying the principles of Universal Design for Learning so that test items can be accessible to the "widest number of students without modifications," she said.

Some of the testing supports that PARRC is weighing for ELLs include pop-up glossaries in students' first language, captions for audio, highlighting of text, just to name a few.

Both testing consortia are working with their states to try and reach a common definition for who an English-learner is, as well as agreement on the types of accommodations for testing that ELLs should get. This is no lightweight undertaking as across the states now there is wide variability on the types of testing accommodations that English-learners receive.

The AFT event also featured presentations from Kenji Hakuta, the Stanford University professor who is heading up the Understanding Language project, and who also is advising both testing groups on ELL issues. Chris Minnich and Carrie Heath Phillips, from the Council of Chief State School Officers, presented the work that group has done to help guide states on developing new English-language-proficiency standards that connect to the common standards, as well as the new English-language-proficiency test it is involved in designing with Oregon and 12 other states. And Lydia Breiseth, the manager of the bilingual website ColorĂ­n Colorado, gave an overview of the numerous resources it offers around the common core to teachers and parents of English-language learners.

For another take on these common core/ELL presentations, check out Diane Staehr Fenner's post on the ColorĂ­n Colorado blog.

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