Assessing English Learners During Remote Learning

Local education leaders offer insight on how to assess ELs’ needs when standardized testing goes awry.
Blog Post
March 19, 2021

When the pandemic forced schools to close in March 2020, Center City Public Charter in Washington, DC was 75 percent through administering the annual English language proficiency (ELP) assessment to its 300 English learner (EL) students. At the time, having incomplete scores for ELs’ language proficiency seemed like the least of their worries, especially as the U.S. Department of Education (ED) waived testing and accountability requirements for the year. No one could have guessed that schools would still be closed well into the 2020-21 school year and that states would still be unclear about whether and how to proceed with administering ELP assessments.

It wasn’t until last month that the acting assistant secretary of education finally weighed in, directing states to move forward with statewide assessments (with considerable wiggle room to account for local context). Despite this directive, ELs’ participation in the ELP assessment this year is far from guaranteed.

States have been gearing up to test kids for the last several months, though some were still hoping a waiver would be granted. When asked about the decision to move forward with the ELP assessment this year, Pennsylvania Title III director and bilingual education adviser Robert Measel, stated that he, “never looked at this as a choice” and was not in a position to tell school districts that assessing ELs’ language proficiency was optional. Since the ELP assessment is the first to be administered in any given year, the state was already midway through their ELP assessment window when ED issued the guidance. Jennifer Paul, EL and accessibility assessment specialist at the Michigan Department of Education, took a similar approach and focused on how to best-support LEAs adhere to their responsibilities to EL students under federal law in spite of the challenges.

Despite an unwavering commitment to upholding ELs’ civil rights, state and local education leaders have signaled that low participation rates among ELs may be unavoidable this year. In both Pennsylvania and Michigan, for example, the ELP assessment deadline was extended through Mid-April, but Measel is still concerned that large numbers of ELs will not be assessed, and Paul has seen anecdotal evidence that parents are declining to bring their kids in to be tested. This may be because assessment participation is inextricably linked to whether schools have reopened for instructional purpose and even now, many students are still learning remotely.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that states use different ELP assessments and vendors, some of which lack remote options. Currently, 36 states administer the WIDA ACCESS ELP assessment provided by the WIDA Consortium, who earlier this year decided it would not offer a remote option. This means that many LEAs will not be able to administer an ELP exam this year.

Alicia Passante, ESL program manager for Center City, shared that her LEA made the decision not to return to in-person instruction after more than 50 percent of parents surveyed said they were not yet comfortable with sending their children back to school buildings. Center City, like the rest of Washington, DC, administers the WIDA ACCESS for ELs assessment, which means they do not have the flexibility to offer it remotely. Just because they are not administering the assessment, however, does not mean they are absolved from ensuring ELs are receiving appropriate supports.

To be sure, the ELP assessment plays an important role in the education of the five million EL students enrolled across the country. However, when it comes to knowing how ELs are doing in real-time, statewide assessments are not the only window into students' learning. Passante was clear that LEAs are not “operating in the dark,” when it comes to gauging ELs’ progress and needs.

Indeed, the conversation around whether ELs will be assessed this year has brought to light an over-reliance on annual summative ELP assessments to tell us everything we need to know about ELs’ educational needs. Certainly, standardized ELP assessment data play an important role in accountability and oversight activities, but they do not necessarily represent a holistic image of ELs’ capabilities. As Kristin Percy Calaff, director of elementary language learning for Highline Public Schools stated, “we’ve never relied on summative assessments to tell us everything about ELs, and if we did, we wouldn’t be doing a good job.”

Prior to the pandemic, Passante’s colleague Alexis Mays-Fields created a new data collection tool for ELs that triangulates multiple pieces of data to show how a student is performing and where they still need to grow. At the core of a student’s portfolio, aptly called their ‘Wonder Pages’, is their English learner plan which maps out where they stand in each of the four domains of language acquisition as well as what goals they need to meet to make progress. During COVID, they created electronic portfolios for some of their ELs and were able to use the partial scores collected last year.

Similarly, school district leaders in California and Washington use methods such as formative assessments, project based learning, and authentic assessments like writing, portfolio and capstone projects and interviews to understand how they should be serving their EL students. According to Dr. Renae Bryant, director of English learner and multilingual services for Anaheim Union High School District in California, their educators already rely on local measures to assess and place students because “the state high stakes standardized testing does not give us timely information to gauge their needs.”

These alternative assessment tools cannot replace the ELP assessment, especially it’s role in reclassifying ELs, but they can be used to provide useful information when the traditional assessment is not available and supplement it when it is. If there is one takeaway from this assessment debacle is that schools need more than one option when it comes to assessing ELs’ language and academic needs. Measel is already developing a series of rubrics that could be used to fill ELs’ language proficiency data gaps this year through a standardized instrument that teachers can use to evaluate their EL student needs during the course of normal instruction.

At a time when schooling has been anything but conventional and in-person interactions between teachers and students are scarce, we must be thoughtful and intentional about how we assess ELs without exacerbating the trauma they have already experienced inside and outside the classroom. Ultimately, civil rights protections like national assessment requirements were created to ensure students are afforded equal opportunity to learn, and in times like these we must ensure these policies are not inadvertently precluding us from fulfilling our responsibility to ELs and their families.

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Related Topics
Accountability, Assessment, and Data English Learners