3 ways to use assessment effectively and equitably

I recently had a chance to talk with a friend of mine about how this year is shaping up. Adriana is a seventh-grade math teacher at a middle school in Portland, Oregon. As she was describing the challenges of maintaining social distancing, navigating teaching in masks, and generally ensuring all her students can safely attend school, the topic of understanding where her students are academically came up several times.

In particular, Adriana said she has difficulty interpreting the performance and instructional needs of her multilingual students. Research on learning during the pandemic has heightened concerns about academic progress among kids in vulnerable populations, including students who are emergent bilinguals, so her concerns are not unfounded.

Adriana and many teachers like her are being encouraged to assess their students more frequently to pinpoint potential unfinished learning. Her classes are made up of a mix of multilingual and native English-speaking students. Half the multilingual students were born in the United States, and the other half were born abroad. Almost all come from Spanish-speaking households. This academic year, she does not have any newcomer students.

Adriana asked if I had any guidance to support her efforts interpreting assessment scores and addressing the needs of her multilingual students. Here are some of the tips I gave her. I hope they will help you as you navigate this school year, too.

1. Know your tools

Yes, language proficiency can impact assessment scores. The Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing remind us to focus on intended use and purpose when interpreting scores, particularly standardized measures. They also tell us that issues like accessibility or language proficiency can impact student performance for reasons other than the contents of the test. In the case of emergent bilingual students, their English proficiency may limit their ability to demonstrate full understanding of the contents of the test simply because there’s a language barrier, not because they don’t understand the subject in which they’re being tested.

Standardized test scores, then, including for interim assessments like MAP® Growth™, must be interpreted cautiously. For the classroom teacher, this means considering a variety of tools to get a more accurate and detailed portrait of each student’s progress. When implementing a balanced assessment system, keep the following questions in mind:

  • What questions are you trying to answer by using a particular assessment? Are you looking for daily information (if so, use formative assessment), information about students’ mastery (summative is the best option), or information on students’ growth so you can make instructional decisions and set goals (an interim assessment is preferred)?
  • How will the assessment you choose help you answer those questions?
  • What assumptions are inherent in your assessment? Does it assume students speak English? Does the format assume students know what to do?
  • How will scores be used? The higher the stakes, the more caution you’ll need to use. Avoid the common pitfall of over-confidence in a single score. For students with limited proficiency in English, this practice can lead to inequitable outcomes: little access to advanced offerings, over-identification for intervention services, and less access to on-grade content until English proficiency has developed.

For more information about understanding test purpose and how it relates to student-centered assessment, check out my colleague Erin Beard’s post “More on assessment empowerment: The power of knowing your purpose.”

2. Triangulate data

When there is a possibility that English proficiency can impact a student’s ability to demonstrate understanding of content, using multiple sources of information is critical. This will help you get a clearer picture of a student’s achievement level.

Adriana takes a portfolio approach to understanding her students. Portfolios give her kids the opportunity to demonstrate proficiency in multiple ways and often in more authentic contexts, with activities that showcase their strengths through a variety of modes and evaluation methods. Sure, unit tests and standardized measures are a piece of each portfolio, but Adriana also uses daily classroom assignments and one-on-one check-ins as formative pieces of information.

Yes, language proficiency can impact assessment scores.

When I spoke with her, Adriana emphasized that her formative opportunities are more aligned with what is going on in the classroom. Her conversations with students allow them to share their understanding using more informal language structures than what is typically found on standardized measures. This kind of personalization empowers students to own their goal setting and be engaged participants in their learning overall.

Additionally, Adriana’s district has some tests in Spanish (the primary language spoken in her class) that she can use for her emergent bilingual students. Knowledge of what those children can do in their native language is often a far better indicator of the kinds of academic content they are ready to engage in. Adriana then tailors the language supports into her lessons so her students get both language and content development.

There’s a real opportunity in classrooms today to leverage English language proficiency data with additional data points (formative, summative, interim) as well as more qualitative information, what Shane Safir and Jamila Dugan call “street data.” This practice isn’t just beneficial for multilingual students; it can be beneficial for an entire classroom. To learn more about how you can do this work with your learners, see Erin Beard’s articles “Begin your assessment empowerment journey with principle #1: Learner context” and “How to get to know your students.”

3. Leverage English proficiency data

Speaking of triangulating data, one of the most important data points to consider for multilingual learners is their most recent English language proficiency (ELP) score.

When I asked Adriana how she uses those scores, she responded somewhat sheepishly that she had a general awareness of her students’ scores but probably didn’t fully leverage the information they can provide. When I asked why, she said she usually thinks about those scores more as part of the accountability and ELL eligibility process than as a classroom tool.

In Adriana’s district, annual language proficiency testing isn’t part of the curriculum and instruction office, so it often feels separate from her planning. To help demonstrate the importance of an ELP score, I shared the following simplified graphics that I often use to describe the relationship between ELP and academic achievement.

The image on the left shows that as students gain English proficiency, they are better able to demonstrate their academic achievement in English. Conversely, students with less proficiency will likely be more impacted on measures of academic achievement in English, which may result in lower scores.

If you look at the chart on the right, some profiles start to emerge. From a practical perspective, consider the two boxes at the bottom, each representing a different student. Let’s assume they both have a low academic score on a math test. When we layer in language proficiency levels, it becomes easy to recognize that although the students have similar academic scores, they likely have different instructional needs or linguistic supports. A similar situation can be seen in the two boxes on the right.  In this case, two students with similar ELP levels have different levels of academic achievement.

To help you better understand your students’ ELP scores, most tests of English proficiency include achievement or performance level descriptors. These can help not only with building language development activities into your daily lesson plans, but also with understanding the kinds of challenges a student may face in various test scenarios.

The following resources are from the two main consortia for English language testing, WIDA’s ACCESS and ELPA21. For other tests of ELP, be sure to reference their scoring and interpretation guides.

Closing thoughts

What started as a conversation between colleagues about surviving teaching in a pandemic turned into an opportunity to discuss how to optimize data to support and empower multilingual students. I hope the tips here help you feel better equipped to continue to support your students and to use assessment as intended: to help them grow and reach their potential.

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