Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Choosing testing accommodations for ELLs

With the back to school paperwork, one thing that teachers are often asked to do is to make recommendations for the ESOL teachers on appropriate accommodations for English language learners. However, research shows that many teachers are not appropriately equipped to choose appropriate testing accommodations for their students, often assigning the same accommodations for students who vary widely in ability and skill.

In my own personal experience at my last school, where an ESOL teacher was not on staff at the time accommodations were assigned, many students were assigned inappropriate accommodations without any consideration to their ability level. For example, one student was assigned the accommodations of scribe (someone else bubbles in the answers) and test administrator reads-aloud the entire test verbatim. When the English language assessment results (on which the student does not receive accommodations) came in at the end of the year, the student tested out of ESOL. Were the accommodations this student was receiving appropriate? Absolutely not. Other students had the accommodation of native language dictionaries, despite the fact that they did not read or write in their native language.

First, here are a few things to know about testing accommodations:
  • Testing accommodations must be given on ALL tests- classroom, district, and state
  • Testing accommodations should be explained to the student and the student should be comfortable using the provided accommodations
  • Students (and parents if possible) should have some input into the decision making process on which accommodations they will receive
  • According to federal law, all students who are eligible for and assigned accommodations must receive them
 When choosing testing accommodations for your students:
  • Become familiar with the testing accommodations available to your ESOL students. Available accommodations vary from state to state, but there is commonality. Know what each testing accommodation entails- for example, if a student has the accommodation of "student reads test aloud to self", this usually means that he or she will also receive "testing in a separate setting", so as not to disturb other students while reading aloud.
  • Get to know the student's strengths and weaknesses. Testing accommodations are not usually due until the first formative assessments, thus giving teachers some time to get to know their students before making recommendations on testing accommodations. Observe your ESOL students carefully and make notes about what they struggle with. Informal assessments and anecdotal notes, as well as past standardized test data and English language proficiency scores can come in handy when making decisions about testing accommodations. 
  • Know your student's educational background and abilities. Does the student read or write in the native language? If so, a native language dictionary is probably a reasonable accommodation. If the student does not read or write in the native language or does not know how to use a dictionary, then it is not an appropriate accommodation. If a student needs to be explicitly instructed on how to use an accommodation, you should do that before implementing the accommodation. If the student has never taken standardized tests before, then a scribe accommodation may be appropriate until he or she learns how to bubble answers or use appropriate writing conventions.
  • Don't be afraid to make adjustments to accommodations throughout the year. Accommodations are not set in stone, and should be reevaluated at least once during the year (preferably halfway through). As students learn, grow and change, you may find that accommodations that were once necessary are no longer used, and thus no longer needed, or you may find that a student is more successful with an accommodation that you initially did not think was necessary. Do not be afraid to communicate and work with your ESOL teacher and testing coordinator to make adjustments to testing accommodations. However, if you make a change to the student's testing accommodations, the parents must be notified, and if possible, the student and parent should be consulted before the change is made.
The idea behind testing accommodations is not to give students a "leg-up" but rather to level the playing field. The accommodations in place for a particular students should make it easier for that student to express the knowledge that he or she possesses about the content with as little linguistic interference as possible. 

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