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7 Tips to Help ELLs Prepare for High-Stakes Testing

Tuesday, February 28, 2017 -- Sarah Cornelius

State testing season is just around the corner, and teachers and students are inevitably feeling the pressure. However, for students classified as English language learners (ELLs) this time of year comes with an added level of stress. These students are not only managing the anxiety all students experience knowing that their academic understanding is about to be put to the test; they’re also dealing with the added challenge of navigating the experience in a language that may still feel foreign.

Nonetheless, come testing day, many ELLs will be expected to show what they know on a test written in English. How can educators take steps to level the playing field for ELLs, and ensure that standardized testing does its job of measuring concept knowledge—not language proficiency?

1. Collaborate with your peers

Although more and more schools are embracing inclusive classrooms, there remains a frequent disconnect between standard content teachers and English language instructors. Make it a priority to keep open lines of communication between these groups. Regular collaboration helps both kinds of instructors better understand their students’ areas of strength and weakness and provide targeted instruction. It’s also a great opportunity for educators to ask questions as peers, share effective instructional practices, and problem solve.

2. Leverage formative assessment data

As is true for all students, preparation is key for ELLs when it comes to high-stakes testing. And classroom formative assessments, which more and more educators are utilizing, are a great place to start. These quick, informal knowledge checks offer a huge degree of flexibility in how they can be administered. This allows educators to make use of oral and project or performance-based formats that often measure ELLs actual content knowledge better than standard written or multiple choice summative assessments. Educators can then use results from these informal assessments to address knowledge gaps in ways that are more representative of what they might face on high-stakes exams.

3. Focus on “Academic English”

Many ELL students, especially those who have been in the school system for some time, seem fluent if you simply watch them talking with classmates. However, sit them down with a reading passage or ask them to write, and they struggle. This indicates a lack of academic English proficiency. Academic English is more formal and descriptive than conversational speech, and it’s key to success in the classroom and in the workplace. Make sure that you integrate opportunities into all of your lessons to help ELLs become familiar with this kind of language, and put a particular emphasis on doing so during test prep efforts. Online programs like Edmentum’s ESL ReadingSmart can be great tools to increase your ELLs’ exposure to academic language, while building literacy skills.

4. Help ELLs understand the importance of testing

Many other countries don’t put nearly the same emphasis on testing as we do in the United States. As a result, some of your ELLs may simply be confused by the premise, or not understand what all the fuss is about. While you certainly don’t want to scare them, it is important to explain what high-stakes state tests are, what they are used for, and why they’re important. This background knowledge can go a long way in motivating your ELLs to put forth their best efforts as they prepare for when testing day rolls around.

5. Make the most of your technology

Online practice programs like Edmentum’s Study Island can be a great tool to help your ELL students practice the actual skills and concepts they will see on high-stakes assessments. And, they can provide you with valuable, real-time data to pinpoint knowledge gaps and offer targeted instruction, even if your learners are working at widely varying levels. Make sure that you’re familiar with the various functionalities, content, and reports available through your online learning programs—you can save yourself a lot of time and administrative work.

6. Familiarize students with testing environments

Minimizing all the factors that can distract ELL students from demonstrating their content knowledge on testing day is key. The testing environment itself is one of the primary sources of these distractions, especially given that so many states now administer tests online. Make sure that your ELL students are comfortable using the kind of device they will be tested on and know how to navigate online assessments. It’s also important that they have been exposed to the different item types they will see on assessments, and go into test day understanding what different kinds of questions are being asked of them.

7. Take advantage of available accommodations

Every state has different guidelines regarding the accommodations they will offer to students for a wide variety of reasons. Many ELLs are eligible to take advantage of these, whether it’s simply an extended testing period, use of a dictionary, or even the option to test in their native language. Look into what the guidelines are in your state or district, and work with district administrators or testing coordinators to make sure your ELLs are granted all accommodations that they’re eligible for—it can make a huge difference, both in minimizing students’ stress, and creating better outcomes.

Looking for more tips to help your ELLs achieve success? Check out these 5 Classroom Tips to Support ELLs!