A Deeper Look at Smarter Balanced’s Assessment Supports for ELLs

Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) released its Usability, Accessibility, and Accommodations Guidelines last week. The Guidelines for ELLs and students with disabilities (SWDs) were unanimously approved by SBAC’s 23 governing states. In this week’s post, I’ll walk you through the Guidelines’ contents and open up a couple of areas for discussion around how the Guidelines might impact you in the classroom.

To help you put the new SBAC Guidelines document into context, there are a few more resources you can read:

SBAC will be releasing professional development materials around the Guidelines in 2014, and their assessments will be fully implemented in 2014-15, launching the assessment system in spring 2015.

What the SBAC Guidelines Are

The Guidelines were developed in collaboration with member states and national experts and are intended to “shape the delivery of online testing for all students,” including those with linguistic needs. The research-based policy outlines three broad categories of resources or tools to ensure the assessments meet all students’ needs, which are further categorized as embedded tools (those included in the computerized testing platform) and non-embedded tools which are used separately from the testing platform.  A summary of the three categories follows:

ToolsExample(s) of ToolsWho SBAC Says Can Use ItFurther Clarification on Who Can Use It
  • A set of universal accessibility tools
  • Digital notepad
  • Scratch paper
  • All students
  • Any ELL or SWD
  • Designated supports
  • Translated pop-up glossary
  • All students for whom a need has been identified by school personnel familiar with each student’s needs and testing resources
  • ELLs
  • SWDs
  • ELLs dually identified as SWD
  • Accommodations
  • Braille
  • Closed captioning
  • Students with a documented need noted in an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 plan
  • SWDs
  • ELLs who are dually identified as SWD

Redefining the Terms

After reading the Guidelines, one of the biggest shifts in my thinking was that I’ll have to change my use of the term “accommodation” depending on which assessment consortium I’m referring to. According to SBAC, "accommodation" means “changes in procedures or materials that increase equitable access during the Smarter Balanced assessments." The term is only being used by SBAC for those students who have an IEP or 504 plan.

ELLs without an IEP or 504 plan are instead eligible for “Designated Supports” in the SBAC consortium, defining them as “those features that are available for use by any student for whom the need has been indicated by an educator (or team of educators with parent/guardian and student)." In contrast, PARCC uses the term accommodation as applicable for ELLs as well as SWDs.

The Guidelines also highlight that a universal tool for one content area may be considered an accommodation for another content area. The idea of a type of support not being static is a new concept for me. For example, a computer calculator is an embedded universal tool. However, a hand-held calculator would be non-embedded tool (such as for students who need a Braille calculator or a talking calculator) and would be considered an accommodation. Also, a designated support in one content area might also be an accommodation in a different content area. For example, when “scribe” is used by SWDs for ELA non-writing items and math items, it is considered a designated support. However, when “scribe” is used by SWDs for ELA writing items, it becomes an accommodation.

New Designated Supports and Translated Languages

While I think most teachers of ELLs are well versed in allowing their ELLs to use supports such as bilingual glossaries on assessments, I came across some designated supports that teachers of ELLs in SBAC states may need to give some deeper thought to.

Some Embedded Designated Supports – depending on the policy of the state the ELL is in – are translated test directions and translated glossaries for math items. Translations for selected construct irrelevant terms  will appear on the computer screen when students click on them. Construct irrelevant terms are terms unrelated to what is being assessed. Let's look at a mathematics item as an example. It reads, "There are about 100 million smartphones in the US. Your teacher has one smartphone. What share of US smartphones does your teacher have? Express your answer using a negative power of 10." In this item, some construct irrelevant terms are teacher and smartphones.

In addition to translated test directions and translated glossaries, “stacked translations” will be available for some ELLs. Stacked translations provide the full translation of each test item above the original item in English. The Guidelines state that stacked translations are for those students who use dual language supports in the classroom. The Guidelines also indicate that using stacked translations will increase students’ reading and cognitive load.

Two non-embedded designated supports for ELLs include bilingual dictionaries for English language arts performance task full writes and translated glossaries for math items. Translated glossaries will be provided for selected construct-irrelevant terms for math.

While the Guidance document didn't specify the following information, an earlier blog post by Lesli Maxwell informs us that all of SBAC’s language supports will be available in Spanish. Smarter Balanced is also poised to offer translations in other languages depending on member states' needs. So far, SBAC has committed to providing the glossary translation tools in Vietnamese and Arabic, the next two most widely used languages in the Smarter Balanced states.

The Classroom Connection

I see two main areas of implications on the ground for educators of ELLs – determining who receives which types of support and integrating these supports in the classroom. One of the first steps in ELLs utilizing these tools will be to determine which ELLs are eligible for which type of support. I’m hopeful that SBAC's professional development materials coming out next year will offer more guidance on the process of assigning appropriate designated supports to very diverse ELLs on a case-by-case basis.

It’s not surprising that ELLs will need ample opportunities to get used to moving to an online platform for their assessments. In addition, they’ll need extensive practice using the embedded designated supports available to them so that their ELLs will be used to accessing these types of supports in an assessment context.


What kind of guidance will you need to have ELLs effectively use designated supports as outlined by Smarter Balanced? For example, I’d like some help on knowing which ELLs would be eligible for specific supports depending on their distinct background variables. I’d also like more guidance on who should be making these decisions, what kind of training they should have, and the extent to which parents of ELLs will be included in the process. I would also like to find out who determines which ELLs can use the stacked translation, and what SBAC's definition of "students using dual language supports in the classroom" is. Finally, I wonder about teachers of ELLs who don't have much access to technology. How will they be able to give ELLs enough practice using embedded assessment supports before they have to take the end of year tests?

What are your questions? Share them here!

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