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Assessing Multilingual Learners of English: Accommodations

by Naashia Mohamed |

Consider the following anecdote, based on a real exchange between a parent and a teacher.

Fiza’s mother is talking to her teacher. Fiza and her family recently immigrated from Pakistan, where Fiza used Urdu at home and in school. Her English language skills were at an early stage of development. Fiza’s parents are concerned that this might negatively impact her performance in an upcoming biology class test.

“Fiza has been working very hard, but she is concerned about the test next week,” the mother says. “Is there anything you can do to support her?”

“Don’t worry about it, Fiza is doing really well,” her teacher assures the mother.

“But Fiza takes a long time to read and process what she has read. I worry that she won’t have sufficient time to complete the test.”

“It is a one-hour test. Perhaps you can help her do a few practice tests at home?” The teacher suggests.

“We have done that, but Fiza needs more time. Is there any chance of being granted additional time for her to complete it?”

“It is a one-hour test,” the teacher repeats. “Everyone gets one hour to complete the test. Fiza should train herself to meet the time requirement.”

Fiza’s mother responds: “Fiza understands the content. It is the language that trips her up, especially reading. Since she receives additional support in class to help her process the unfamiliar language and express herself in English, surely it makes sense that she receives additional support during assessments as well?”

The mother’s argument here is clearly on point. She believes in the need for accommodations to be made to ensure that students are being assessed for their content knowledge rather than their English language proficiency.

The need to evaluate multilingual learners of English (MLEs) differently is essential; we cannot assess students from multiple backgrounds in the same way that we do monolinguals because they don’t use their language(s) the same way. If MLEs are assessed from a monolingual point of view, we are privileging those who are more proficient in the school language by giving them an unfair advantage. The difficulty in offering fair and equitable assessments for MLEs relates to educators’ understanding of the interrelationships between language proficiency and content knowledge. Though both are important, for assessments to be valid, assessment tasks must be crafted in ways that do not blur the boundaries of language and content.

Take, for example, the following assessment task for mathematics:

Julia went to 10 houses on her street for Halloween. Five of the houses gave her a chocolate bar. What fraction of houses on Julia’s street gave her a chocolate bar?

For a student to be able to successfully work out the word problem, regardless of their mathematical knowledge, they need to have adequate competence in English to read and understand the text. Additionally, they need to be familiar with the cultural knowledge of Halloween and its associated practices. This brings into question the validity of the assessment: Are students being assessed for their content knowledge or their linguistic and cultural knowledge? Without a doubt, if MLEs with developing levels of proficiency in the school language are assessed under the same conditions as their monolingual peers, they are at a disadvantage. Some accommodations are necessary to level the playing field.

What Are Accommodations?

Accommodations enable the measurement of MLEs’ performance more inclusively, because they provide more equitable access to assessments and support learners in making better sense of the test content, engaging with the content, and responding to the content. Accommodations for MLEs must be effective, valid, and feasible:

Effective: For accommodations to be effective, they should provide evidence of improved performance in demonstrating content knowledge.

Valid: Valid assessments ensure that students are tested without altering the construct being assessed.

Feasible: Some accommodations, however effective, may not be feasible for a given context. Accommodations can be useless if they are not cost-effective, are burdensome to implement, or become too complex. 

Here are some of the most commonly used test accommodations for MLEs:

    • Use of bilingual dictionaries
    • Extended time to complete assessment
    • Simplifying instructions
    • Providing instructions in the language of instruction as well as the student’s home language
    • Instructions and test items read aloud by a support person
    • Instructions and test items read aloud in the language of instruction and the student’s home language by an interpreter
    • Allowing student to respond to test orally, rather than in writing
    • Allowing student to respond in writing in their home language

Which Accommodations Are Right for Multilingual Learners of English?

It is important that the accommodations provided for learners are appropriate to their needs, and that they are familiar with the accommodations prior to the assessment. Let us take Fiza’s example, from the earlier anecdote. If we know that Fiza’s oral language is stronger than her other literacy skills in English, she may benefit from having instructions and test content read aloud to her and repeated in Urdu, her home language. For this to be implemented, a bilingual interpreter would be required to work with her.

Alternatively, she could be provided with more time to complete the test, and be placed in a location separate from the rest of the class. However, given her challenges with reading, it would not be appropriate to provide a bilingual dictionary for Fiza to use independently during the test.

To ensure that Fiza can benefit from being provided with oral language support during the test, an interpreter can work regularly with Fiza during classroom tasks so that she becomes familiar with the process prior to the time of the assessment.

In making judgements about which accommodations may be suitable for your learners, ask yourself:

    • What do I know about the student, their languages, and their proficiency in their languages?
    • Which accommodations are available and can be implemented in my context?
    • Which accommodations are most effective for the assessment task?
    • How can the accommodations be built into classroom instructional time prior to the date of the assessment?

Concluding Thoughts

Providing accommodations for MLEs during assessments does not mean a lowering of expectations or standards. The additional scaffolding for MLEs makes assessment more equitable and ensures that students who speak the language of instruction are not privileged over MLEs. At the same time, it is important to remember that accommodations are temporary supports. They should only be implemented based on need, and removed as students become more proficient in the school language.


About the author

Naashia Mohamed

Naashia Mohamed is a Senior Lecturer of TESOL at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her work in teacher education focuses on addressing the needs of language learners in schools and considers how school policies and practices can reduce the educational gaps faced by immigrant children and youth. Naashia has published in journals such as TESOL Quarterly, Current Issues in Language Planning, International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, and ELT Journal. Her research addresses issues of identity, power, and equity in language education policy and practice.

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