ELL Testing Madness

Friday, Feb. 24, 2023

Every January-February, teachers of English Language Learners (ELLs) give up six weeks of normalcy to conduct mandated WiDA Access testing for all K-12 students. The Maryland State Department of Education requires all ELLS to be tested in four domains every year: Listening, Reading, Writing, and Speaking. This single test determines student proficiency level, a measurement used to allocate state funding for staff, materials, and resources – and not much else.

The problem is that one, single, deeply-flawed test determines a child’s status as an English Language Learner at school. This needs to change. 

First, the results of the WiDA Access test don’t arrive until late in the school year (late May),
when master schedules and staffing allocations have already been determined. While it’s always interesting to see how my students performed on the different components, the test scores arrive too late to inform my classroom instruction.

Second, the Speaking component of the test does not really measure a child’s ability to speak English. If they have not practiced speaking into a microphone, or if they don’t know they will get cut off (with no time to go back and re-record), their speaking score is low. Sometimes this is also reflected in the classroom. But when a test measures the ability to use technology rather than what it’s designed to measure, the results are invalid. 

Before the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) brought the WiDA test to our doorstep, my district used a variety of criteria to determine a child’s proficiency in English: grades, performance on non-WiDA tests (including grade-level assessments in English, Biology, Algebra, and Government), reading tests like MAP-R, and – most importantly – teacher judgment. We still use these measures to place actual children in actual classes – not their WiDA scores. 

Teachers of English Language Learners (ELD teachers) often know their students more intimately than other education professionals because we work with the same students year after year. When newcomers arrive with limited English, their ELD teachers greet them with warm smiles. Their ELD teachers become their culture brokers, advocates, counselors, and in loco parentis trusted adults. We watch them grow and gain confidence as they adapt and make friends. As soon as they achieve proficiency, we say good-bye and send them into the mainstream. 

Once they pass the WiDA Access test and are out of our domain, these ELL success stories no longer count in state data. That’s a good thing! We’ve done our jobs! But the students who do not pass the WiDA Access test will be listed as English Language Learners until they pass the test, die trying, or graduate. 

I teach in a Montgomery County High School, where seniors who have been in the English Language Development (ELD) program since elementary school cannot exit the program. Many of these are receiving special education services or have significant learning challenges. Some have documents signed by their parents refusing ELD services. They will never pass the WiDA test. In spite of the fact they have refused ELD services, we still have to give them the WiDA Access test every year. All four domains. 

We have to pull students from their regular classes – often at the beginning of a new semester, when teachers are introducing new content or the class is conducting valuable get-to-know-you activities – to make them sit for a test that has absolutely zero relevance to their educational journey, their future, or their eligibility for graduation.

Yet, Maryland State Department of Education insists that we disrupt actual student learning so that they can sit for a meaningless test. To make matters worse, teachers and school administrators must track down often-reluctant students and give up hours of their planning time in order to proctor the WiDA Access test, each component taking about an hour. 

In 2019, I charted my own missed planning periods over the course of six weeks: 18 hours. In addition to my regular duty day, I gave up 18 hours of contractual planning time to administer the WiDA test. I never got recognized or compensated or for those hours. I was expected to donate my time. Many of my elementary school colleagues basically stop instruction for the entire six weeks of the testing window! Critical services for the most-needy students basically come to a halt during the WiDA testing window in many schools. 

This has got to change. Our students deserve better. 

Note/ Addendum:

Maryland is one of 41 states that adopted the ACCESS for ELLs Test (WIDA) assessment and their aligned standards. To meet federal standards, it is a “valid and reliable source” for determining English language proficiency levels for funding purposes. Administrators say that the psychometrics of the ACCESS for ELLs test are extremely strong and yield valid and reliable English language proficiency levels that can be used to support tiered funding.

However, my point is threefold: A) that some students will never exit the program because this single test determines their “proficiency level,” B) the speaking test is problematic, and C) the disruptions to teaching and learning are extreme.

I recommend that we bring back a dashboard of criteria for students to exit the ELD program: teacher judgment, attendance, grades, performance on other tests, and the WiDA test. In addition, schools should get district help administering the WiDA test so that teachers can continue teaching during the six-week testing window. 

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Eva K. Sullivan teaches English Language Learners in Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland. She was an English Language Fellow with U.S. Department of State during the 2017-2018 school year, working with the Ministry of Education in Laos, Southeast Asia. She writes short stories, personal essays, and has completed a memoir about her experiences as an expat in West Africa in the 1990s.

One thought on “ELL Testing Madness”

  1. Eva, Thanks for sharing this. Many young people in my area benefit from programs like the one you carry out. I can only imagine the pressure added by the new evaluation criterion imposed upon teachers and schools such as yours. Please let me kknow if there is an opportunity to sign onto your letter. Again, thanks for sharing. See you on the River. Marian


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