Testing and evaluating students is a challenge for teachers. English as a Second or Other Language (ESOL) students in the United States are no exception. The testing and evaluating of ESOL students has additional layers of complexity due in part to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) but also because of different state standardized tests and state ESOL guidelines for teachers. By better understanding the different factors involved in ESOL testing and evaluation, teachers can be more effective at gauging their ESOL students' progress.
The NCLB and English Language Learners
The NCLB requires all children in grades three to eight to take the same state assessments for math, science and reading/language arts as all other students. There are several accommodations for English language learners (ELLs) within the NCLB. One of these is a one-year exemption from reading/language arts testing if the students have been in the U.S. for less than 12 months. Another is the possibility of taking the exams in their native language. Finally, administering the test in small groups, allowing students extra time, permitting the use of dictionaries and providing simplified instructions are all considered appropriate testing accommodations within the NCLB for ELLs.
ESOL Proficiency Guidelines
ESOL students must also take an annual English language proficiency test in addition to the state-wide content exams discussed previously. This proficiency test is to be used as a way for students to demonstrate their English language development in four major skill areas: reading, writing, listening and speaking. States are also required by the NCLB to have English language proficiency standards to guide the instruction of language development. Teachers should be aware that the interpretation of these NCLB guidelines will vary in each state and that each state uses different proficiency tests.
For various reasons, tests can be challenging for students who are learning English. To begin with, they simply may not have developed the language proficiency necessary to effectively write the exam, even after the NCLB's 12-month exemption. They may be unfamiliar with the structure of the test and therefore be unprepared to respond to the questions appropriately. Some students may also have test-anxiety issues. Students may get stuck on one question and spend too much time on it. Finally, students may be unfamiliar with the language used in the instructions for the test. Any or all of these can be a factor that can affect the ability of English language learners to do their best on a standardized test.
Teachers can help students become more comfortable with the test format by practicing with the different types of questions they might encounter on the exam, such as true/false, multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank or short answer. Test-anxiety issues can be reduced by becoming familiar with the test structure through practice, although this may not eliminate anxiety completely for every student. Teachers can help students understand that it is okay to skip questions if the questions are too difficult and then come back to them if there is enough time remaining. This simple strategy can help students focus on answering as many questions as possible within a time limit. Finally, if at all possible and allowed by the state, the instructions for the test can be provided in the students' native language. This will enable students to have the highest possibility of correctly understanding and responding to the questions in the test.
Based in Victoria, BC, Canada, Josh Hawthorne has been writing curriculum and digital project guides since 1998. He holds a bachelor's degree in education from the University of Victoria. Hawthorne freely admits he loves reading zombie literature and is currently working on a book about error correction for students learning English (without zombies).