Assisting and Assessing English-Language Learners in Kindergarten

Research and equity are two major areas of emphasis for ETS and often they are tied together in ways many would not expect.

One way is in studying how to improve the proficiency of English-language (ELs) learners, the fastest growing demographic in the country. Currently, there are 5 million ELs in the United States, or about 10 percent of all students, but the percentage is expected to rise to 40 percent by 2030.

Debra Ackerman, an early childhood education-focused researcher at ETS’s Policy Evaluation and Research Center, says “not all of the assessments used for formative purposes have had sufficient, or in some cases, any psychometric research conducted to determine the extent to which they are valid for a specific purpose or population.”

That can directly affect ELs in an adverse way, she said. “The lack of research in this area can be a potential educational equity issue as well, which is one reason why I think it’s important to focus on the potential usefulness of KEAs (Kindergarten Entry Assessments) for specific groups of kindergartners such as English learners.”

Ackerman studies KEAs, which are being developed, tested or implemented in at least 40 states. “The lack of research on some KEAs is not that surprising when you consider that the majority of these measures have been incorporated into state education policies just within the past 10 years. Part of this issue stems from policies that are moving faster than research.”

The KEAs can reflect a direct assessment, an observational rubric approach or both, depending on what each state chooses to do. The teacher’s role in the KEA process also differs, with some direct assessments administered on a one-on-one basis, while others are given on a computer. Observational rubrics typically require teachers to collect evidence of a student’s knowledge or skill via notes, photos and work samples. KEAs also vary in terms of their domains (language, literacy, mathematics, etc.) and the total number of questions within domains.

Adults who assess young ELs also may need a thorough understanding of bilingual language acquisition so that they can distinguish between inadequate content knowledge and a student’s lack of English language or cultural proficiency.

~ Debra Ackerman

Ackerman explains “there is an ongoing concern regarding the academic achievement gaps between EL kindergartners and their non-EL peers. KEAs have been promoted as having the potential to mitigate these emerging achievement gaps by highlighting kindergartners’ academic strengths and weaknesses, and in turn, helping teachers better understand their students’ learning needs.” She stressed, however, that the KEA data may be less accurate in assessing ELs compared to their non-EL peers.

One important strategy that teachers can use to enhance the academic outcomes of young ELs is to support the development of their home language and English. A related strategy is to use valid and reliable formative assessments, such as KEAs, correctly to determine what their EL students know and can do.

However, to support the validity of KEAs for generating accurate evidence of EL students’ knowledge and skills, teachers should consider incorporating what are known as “direct linguistic accommodations.” Such accommodations allow students to use their home language or English, or even gestures such as head nodding or pointing, as part of the assessment process.

Well-trained bilingual teachers who are culturally competent are necessary to implement both strategies. “Adults who assess young ELs also may need a thorough understanding of bilingual language acquisition so that they can distinguish between inadequate content knowledge and a student’s lack of English language or cultural proficiency,” Ackerman noted.

The totality of any child’s experiences will certainly affect their formal learning as they grow older, Ackerman says. “The problem is that not all children will have access to the types of experiences that research tells us are essential for promoting their language, literacy, cognitive, social-emotional or physical development.”

These unequal opportunities can contribute to students’ K–12 achievement gaps. “This is where access to publicly funded, high-quality early learning can make a critical difference in children’s short- and long-term learning and developmental outcomes,” Ackerman says, adding there also has to be a focus on the types of interactions that children have with their teachers.

Ackerman believes ETS can play a key role in fostering its goal of student learning “by not only continuing to conduct research that is actually used to inform policy and practice, but also by disseminating such research in a variety of formats.” Such research also can be useful for helping a variety of education stakeholders understand that assessment validity and reliability are important concepts at the early childhood level as well.