Assessment Initiatives: ELLs & the CCSS

In this week’s post, I’ll share some information related to assessing English language learners that I gathered while attending the Council of Chief State School Officers National Conference on Student Assessment last week. You can take a look at the CCSSO NCSA conference program as well as several presentations here.

This conference was very timely, as the full operational administration of the CCSS content assessments led by Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) is taking place in the 2014-15 academic year. With the CCSS assessments quickly coming down the pike, there was quite a lot of talk about them at the conference. It was also refreshing to note that the unique considerations of ELLs as well as Students with Disabilities were a frequent topic of presentations.

My big takeaway from the conference is that a lot of research is being done on assessment, including on assessment of ELLs, but I’m concerned about how the findings are reaching teachers. To help spread the news to teachers, I’ll do my best to share some salient information on assessment for ELLs in this post. This post will include information on formative assessment of ELLs, Next Generation assessments for unique populations, ELLs with disabilities, and what’s happening with English language development assessments.

Formative Assessment and ELLs

gary_cookIn a very interesting presentation by WIDA’s Gary Cook, Dr. Cook first provided some background information on factors that impact the assessment of ELLs. For example, he said that teachers are providing interventions with the wrong information about ELLs, and he spoke about the importance of educators knowing more about their students to be able to deliver quality instruction and assess them equitably. He shared also some demographic information which impacts assessment, such as the fact that 57% of ELLs are born in the United States. In addition, while 70% of ELLs in the US are in urban areas, in states that are part of the WIDA consortium, 70% of school districts have fewer than 100 ELLs.

Dr. Cook stresses that when we assess ELLs, we need to assess “construct relevant language” or language that is critical to the content. Although it depends on where ELLs start, Dr. Cook’s research finds that it takes 5-7 years for ELLs to learn English construct relevant language, which is why assessments need to be designed to measure the appropriate content. In essence, we need to understand what the language is that we want these kids to know and design assessments around it. To that end, every item on SBAC has a linguistic complexity level assigned to motivate that consortium to check the level of construct relevant language presented.

When asked his opinion about his level of confidence in the assessment industry when it comes to ELLs, Cook said he was encouraged that SBAC and PARCC recognize the issue. However, he feels the assessment vendors may have a longer way to go to get that message.

Next Generation Assessments for Unique Populations

Another fascinating presentation by staff from Measured Progress and ETS captivated my interest by actually demonstrating test items that allow for unique populations such as ELLs and Students with Disabilities to better access them. (I highly encourage you to look at the helpful visuals used in this presentation!)  Presenters described how the essence of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which frames the design of the PARCC and SBAC assessments, is flexibility and the inclusion of alternatives. They demonstrated that a digital test item isn't just one fixed piece of content – like it would be on a paper and pencil test - but rather a complex system of possibilities that allow for students with different strengths and needs to better demonstrate understanding of concepts assessed.

For example, the presenters demonstrated how one test item can be assessed using supports such as Braille, a video clip of American Sign Language, and a translation of the item. Despite the advances being made in assessment, unless students have prior instructional experience using these types of digital supports, they can be confusing.

One feature of digital items that resonated with me is that the stigma of having an accommodation can be greatly reduced with computerized testing. When ELLs use accommodations with paper and pencil tests, such as a bilingual glossary, it’s obvious to other students that ELLs are using this support. With technology based testing, however, all the accommodations are built in to the computer interface and specialized for individual students. It won’t be apparent who is using accommodations and who is not. Therefore, more students eligible for accommodations are apt to actually use them. On a related note, PARCC recently approved its testing policies for ELLs including information about accommodations.

ELLs with Disabilities & Assessment

I also learned about the Improving the Validity of Assessment Results for English Language Learners with Disabilities (IVARED) project, which is funded by a federal grant and awarded to a consortium of five state departments of education (Arizona, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, and Washington) with the National Center on Educational Outcomes. The project aims to learn more about how ELLs with disabilities (also called dually identified ELLs) learn best and how teachers can most effectively support their learning. IVARED is: (1) identifying each state’s population of dually identified ELLs and relating that information to the students’ assessment performance, (2) describing inclusions of ELLs with disabilities in state assessment participation and accommodation policies, and (3) developing principles and guidelines for assessing these students.


As you probably are aware, two consortia are creating English language proficiency/development (ELP/D) standards and assessments that are correlated to the language found in the CCSS. A presentation at CCSSO centered on ELP/D assessments and was titled Challenges of Transitioning English language Proficiency/Development Standards and the New On-Line Assessment System to Reflect the Language Behind the Common Core.  The lineup included  presenters representing WIDA (Tim Boals, Gary Cook, Margo Gottlieb, Carsten Wilmes), ELPA21 (Kenji Hakuta), Pearson (Edynn Sato), the Center for Applied Linguistics (Dorry Kenyon) along with the Wisconsin Department of Education (Audrey Lesondak) and the California Department of Education (Lily Roberts).

widaThe presenters shared that WIDA’s Assessment Services Supporting ELs through Technology Systems (ASSETS) will contain some notable differences over their current ACCESS for ELLs assessment of ELP/D. Since ASSETS will be a technology-based assessment system, it will contextualize the source of the dialogue or text that students work with. In writing, there will be a variety of stimulus that presents the academic content to contextualize it for students. For the speaking portion, students will have a virtual test administrator and virtual student who models the tasks students are to take part in. The Center for Applied Linguistics has been conducting cognitive labs of more than 115 students to study the mental processes students use when completing ASSETS tasks and have received encouraging results so far.

As for ELPA21, Dr. Hakuta focused more on the English language development standards piece that is not funded by the grant funds but that will be assessed on ELPA21. ELPA21’s ELD standards build on California’s ELD standards but take these standards another step forward. ELPA21’s standards do so because the CA standards are aligned to English language arts only and the ELPD Framework wasn’t officially released when CA developed their standards. The WestEd team is working on developing the standards with Dr. Lynn Shafer Willner leading the charge.

Your Turn

You’ve heard enough from me! What have you been seeing in your school, district, or state in terms of how ELLs will be assessed on the CCSS and on English language development? How does formative assessment fit in?


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We have a support history teacher at our school who is part of a dynamite History team who presents material in a memorable and comprehensible way. However, she and I have a running argument that I never win. She believes that the CCSS demands that students be able to write essays on the material; however, as we know, they often are not ready to do that for lack of words and structure. Try getting ELLs to come up with a "grabber." She will not pass them, although I've shown her on WIDA scales how they may need to bullet what they know. How do we get around the writing directives that seem to want to homogenize students no matter what their abilities or language level? I'm pretty close to going to the special ed supervisor with my supervisor over this but not sure if the CCSS gives my students any slack.

You have a very good point, Susan. One suggestion that Diane August shared at the CCSSO assessment conference was to work with Common Core standards that are below ELLs' grade level. Since the CCSS are vertically aligned, you can work up to grade level standards yet still work with the same "essence" of the standard at a lower grade level. Of course this would be on a case by case basis, based on students' levels of English language proficiency. What suggestions do others have? .

Please see this comment from Margo Margo Gottlieb. This response is directed at Susan Harrison's question but will be applicable to many readers.

Classroom assessment is complex, especially for ELLs, as teachers must be sensitive to the strengths the students bring from their home languages as well as the students' English language proficiency. In addition, teachers and school leaders have to realize that while ELLs are making gains in their English language development, the students' grades in the content areas, to the extent feasible, should be based on their demonstration of CCSS-referenced skills and understandings. Therefore, it seems to me that the history teacher needs to center her attention on the students' accuracy of history skills and concepts and not let the students' language mask that determination. The CCSS allows for multiple modalities to show evidence of those understandings and while all students may be required to demonstrate the same content skills, there are a variety of venues and supports to be differentiated for ELLs.

I assume that this middle or high school teacher is interpreting literacy in social studies/ history as writing. The operative words for the CCSS is that the skills and understandings described under literacy in social studies/ history are designed for the content area of English Language Arts...they are not history standards, per se. Although language and social studies/ history are indeed integrated for instruction, separate criteria should be applied for assessment. The WIDA ELD standards specifically reflect the language of Social Studies- in this case, history, which provides the contexts and pathways for ELLs' English language development. The ELD specialist should offer ways in which the standards' shared academic language can help ELLs negotiate meaning while learning language and content. For ELLs, both two sets of standards are to be used to enhance their opportunities for academic success. Margo Gottlieb

Thank you for a great summary on recent happenings with Assessment for ELs on the CCSS.

About Susan's question above, it is a common one for teachers across the curriculum when working with English Learners. When we remove barriers to students demonstrating what they have learned and can do, they are more likely to be successful. And that is what we are all about!

One possible solution to the concern mentioned above, would be for the history teacher and ESOL teacher/ELD Specialist to work together
and to reference the language of existing ELD writing rubrics for the language control, vocabulary and linguistic control portions of the history assignment . In this way, the history teacher can really focus on the standards and curriculum she is assessing- without language getting in the way of the student demonstrating what she has learned. Consequently, it is more likely that the teacher will be able to assess the student's actual mastery of the standards being assessed.

I also want to thank you Diane for such a thorough blog. It gives so much info and resources to keep abreast of a rapidly changing educational landscape for ELs.
There is so much in these posted comments that gets at the heart of educating ELs. I think Margo Gottlieb and rbmiskell do well to point the need and strategies for differentiating language and content expectations. Margo also brings up a good point about the Reading/Writing expectations for Social Studies are essentially Language Arts based, but I have seen in my school that these are not limited to Language Arts classes and there is already great collaboration between SS, SCI, and LA teachers around addressing reading/writing needs using shared standards, but being specific to the SS/SCI language demands.

I agree also with Diane August that vertical scaling of the Common Core should be utilized to help students make the most gains possible. I think we get uneasy when they hear scaling down and assume that it is an automatic lowering of standards and expectations for students, when in reality it is meeting the students within their Zones of Proximal Development (ZPD) for a given skill area. Scaling up should also be encouraged for students who need more than the grade level standard for a certain area. I am afraid that we are so concerned about lowering standards for ELs that we will only be teaching grade level standards and not be attuned to vastly different needs in terms of achievable content objectives for these students.

I have to disagree soundly with Margo Gottlieb that the WIDA ELD Standards show the pathways for language development within specific content area. The WIDA Standard (not standards)for Social Studies is “English language learners communicate information, ideas and concepts necessary for academic success in the content area of Social Studies.” That is only WIDA Standard for SS. There are sample Model Performance Indicators (MPI), but these are very limited samples that are designed to be changed or transformed by teachers. These are hardly clear pathways. WIDA and others are working on being more specific in describing the language development in specific content areas and I think this will be aided by Common Core with universal reading/writing expectations in LA, SS,and SCI. However, to say these progressions are already in place and that the WIDA Standards relate the specific language of the content area is greatly exaggerated.

Related to the WIDA Standards is rbmiskell’s great suggestion to use rubrics specific to ELs for showing teachers appropriate language expectations. The encourage WIDA to create more developmentally scaled rubrics for students in different grade levels and bands rather than a generic K-12 rubric that does not take into account the different ages/developmental levels and curricular expectations.

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