The weather is warming up, trees are turning green, birds are chirping, flowers are blooming, and the smell of spring is in the air—clear signs that it’s testing season! Across the nation, millions of students are taking their statewide assessments this spring, including multilingual learners who are also taking the state’s English language proficiency test—double the work.
While testing procedures at both state and local levels are complicated enough, the vetting process for state assessment systems is just as complex and involved, but not without equity as the target. Under Title I of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Act, the U.S. Department of Education (USED) is obligated to conduct a peer review of the technical quality of state assessment systems to determine their soundness. This process was developed to examine the extent to which state assessment systems are valid and reliable measures of student achievement of state academic content standards in math, English/language arts, science, and English proficiency of all multilingual learners (USED, 2018). Toward those ends, states must provide evidence that their assessments align with the state’s challenging content standards and adopt “academic achievement standards aligned to the academic content standards to define levels of student achievement on the assessments” (USED, p. 5, 2018). Currently, the Region 7 Comprehensive Center is supporting the Mississippi Department of Education with these efforts in partnership with the Center for Applied Linguistics. This peer review process not only requires expertise in assessment and standards, but it also requires support from researchers with expertise in the analysis of language complexity of the content-area standards.
What does this mean for multilingual learners?
The soundness of these high-stakes tests matters for the students who take them and for the schools who administer them, and the federally required peer review process aims to address this issue. Soundness matters because, by definition, multilingual learners are not yet fully proficient in English, but they are required, with some exceptions, to take these statewide accountability assessments, which are administered in English. You are probably wondering how these students can demonstrate growth and attainment of the content standards if they are still learning English. Enter the English Language Proficiency (ELP) standards, which are designed to develop academic language in English in the domains of speaking, listening, reading, and writing.
So, how does the peer review process address the issue of soundness?
USED notes, “ELP standards should contain language proficiency expectations that reflect the language needed for ELs to acquire and demonstrate their achievement of the knowledge and skills identified in the State’s academic content standards appropriate to each grade in at least reading/language arts, mathematics, and science” (p. 24).
In theory, if educators provide multilingual learners with ELP standards that correspond with the challenging academic content standards, they have provided them with the linguistic supports needed to learn and master content, and students will experience growth and achievement in language development and academic content as measured by the statewide assessments. That may be a mouthful, but it captures the theory of action. To determine the extent to which these sets of standards align, states need to conduct a study to find linkages between state content standards to ELP standards and to identify the correspondence between both sets of standards in terms of cognitive complexity (depth) and how linking is distributed among goals within a standard (breadth) (Chi et al., 2011). You can read more about this process here.
How does the alignment of standards level the playing field for multilingual learners?
Researchers argue, “There is a fundamental demand for the clear articulation of the English language knowledge and skills found in ELP standards so that these may be compared with the inherent language complexity of the academic content standards (whether overt or implicit) to ascertain the degree of correspondence between them” (Bailey et al., 2022. p. 5). Ensuring ELP standards correspond with content standards is part of making sure that multilingual learners get the language support they need in order to fully access the content areas. The alignment between content and ELP standards is one way to ensure that students are sufficiently supported in terms of the development of academic language. For USED, the purpose of the requirement aligns with principles of educational equity, but setting targets for alignment is ambiguous, and keeping pace with the evolution and refinement of the ELP standards (namely the ELPA 21 Standards and the WIDA ELD Standards Framework 2020 Edition) is challenging (Bailey et al., 2022). More research is needed to develop better peer review guidance and alignment studies. Nevertheless, we have a starting place for developing equitable and sound assessment systems and a place for continuous improvement. We will see what the end of the school year brings as spring turns to summer.
Heidi T. Goertzen, PhD, Region 7 Comprehensive Center
Megan Montee, PhD, Center for Applied Linguistics
Bailey, A. L., Wolf, M. K., & Ballard, L. (2022). English language proficiency standards and assessment alignment: Issues, insights, and innovations for guiding peer review (ETS Research Note). ETS.
Chi, Y., Garcia, B., Surber, C., & Trautman, L. (2011). Alignment Study between the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Mathematics and the WIDA English Language Proficiency Standards, 2007 Edition, PreKindergarten through Grade 12. University of Oklahoma E-TEAM.
Cook, H. G., Sahakyan, N., & Linquanti, R. (2017). Including Recently Arrived English Learners in State Accountability Systems: An Empirical Illustration of Models. WCER Working Paper No. 2017-1. Wisconsin Center for Education Research.
US Department of Education. (2018). A state’s guide to the US Department of Education’s assessment peer review process. https://www2.ed.gov/admins/lead/account/saa/assessmentpeerreview.pdf