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Smarter Balanced Moves Ahead on Testing Tools for English-Learners

The Smarter Balanced group of states writing new, common-core assessments will soon make final decisions on the array of tools and testing supports that will be available for test-takers who are English-language learners and students with disabilities.

In the coming weeks, the 25 states that currently make up the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium will review the latest iteration of guidelines for accessibility and accommodations for ELLs and students with disabilities and provide feedback and suggested changes. The states will debate and vote on a final set of guidelines at a Smarter Balanced board meeting in Los Angeles on Sept. 10.

Magda Chia, the director of underrepresented students for Smarter Balanced, told me that the soon-to-come guidelines have been evolving over the past year. As I reported in a story back in the spring, the guidelines are informed by available research about which testing accommodations are effective in making test items more accessible to English-learners, as well as valid so as not to alter what a test item is intended to measure.

One of the tools that Smarter Balanced will present to states, for example, is a range of translation options on the math assessments. For sure, Spanish will be offered, and Smarter Balanced last month put out a request for proposal to potential bidders to provide translation services in that language, as well as American Sign Language, among others.

Specifically, Smarter Balanced is seeking full translation of the math assessment (test items, test directions, scoring rubrics, etc.) for grades 3-8 in Spanish. It also wants keyword glossary translations to be done in Spanish, Vietnamese, and Arabic in grades 3-8 and grade 11. While Spanish, Vietnamese, and Arabic are the top three priority languages, translations into other languages will also be considered, Chia said.

Smarter Balanced—which developed a framework on translating the math assessments into other languages—is asking the work to be completed by the end of November at a cost not to exceed $7 million, according to details in the request.

PARCC—the other group of states developing common assessments—approved its first edition of test supports for ELLs and students with disabilities in June, but has not yet finalized its approach to using native-language assessments. Advocates for ELLs have asked PARCC to provide Spanish-language versions of its tests.

In addition to its translations work as a tool for English-learners, Smarter Balanced has developed a ratings system of sorts to guide states' decisions about which accommodations to use for English-learners and students with disabilities. The categories are "use," "use with caution," "not use," or "unsure." Only those that have sufficient evidence in research literature to show that they make a test item more accessible to ELLs while also not providing an unfair advantage to the test taker earned a "use" recommendation.

The test designers at Smarter Balanced have also been using a language complexity tool that helps determine whether the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax in a test item can be made simpler, or more accessible, without changing what the item is meant to measure.

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