Many of the standardized assessments used in U.S. schools are less accurate at measuring ELLs’ language and content knowledge than they are for non-ELLs. This is often because tests are not normed on a representative sample of ELLs and therefore inadequately consider ELLs’ unique linguistic abilities and cultural knowledge. For instance, an early literacy test in English might assess a child’s ability to form, decode, and deconstruct compound words (e.g. “baseball,” “sandbox,” or “starfish”). While common in English, compound words are rare in Spanish—the most common native language of ELLs.
Many assessments include accommodations for ELLs (like the ones for the Smarter Balanced assessments), but these are rife with complications. For example, in order for bilingual dictionaries (a common accommodation for ELLs) to be helpful, a student needs to know both how to read and understand the meaning of a given word in their native language when he or she looks up the translation. Since most ELLs are educated in monolingual English classrooms, they may not be familiar with content-specific words in their native language, which could render a bilingual dictionary useless. Some tests also allow for translation to Spanish, however this is not beneficial for the 25 percent of ELLs who are non-Spanish speakers.
In addition, ELLs’ test scores may be less accurate because items that are designed to assess content knowledge require a level of English that some ELLs have not yet acquired. Therefore, the test becomes an assessment of their language abilities rather than what they know about the given topic. Theoretically, testing accommodations should provide enough linguistic support to mitigate their emergent English abilities, but — as described above — that is often not the case.
Many standardized tests are culturally inappropriate for ELLs and may contain references to topics, events, or ideas that ELLs have not yet been exposed to. For example, a writing prompt might ask that a test-taker take a stance on the necessity of the NASA space program. If an ELL is not familiar with NASA or comes from a country without a space program, they might not have enough background knowledge to write a substantial essay.