What Special Considerations Are There When Interpreting Reading Assessment Data from English Learners?

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Recently, I was part of a panel of reading assessment specialists. One of the questions we were asked related to whether there might be special considerations for interpreting reading data for students for whom English is not their first language.

This is a very important question, and I’m so glad it came up in the conversation. I wanted to take a little time to share a bit more on the topic, as this particular question is actually the focus of my doctoral dissertation.

Prior to coming to the University of Oregon for my graduate studies, I was a high school English and English as a Second Language teacher for 12 years. In fact, my motivation for going into teaching in the first place stemmed largely from my experiences tutoring recent immigrants in English when I was a high school student. Meeting the needs of this growing population has long been of interest to me personally as well as professionally.

When Gerald Tindal and I were initially developing the easyCBM® assessment system back in 2006, we wanted to be sure that the assessments were appropriate for students with a variety of special learning needs, including English learners. Many of the features we have incorporated into the system, such as the read aloud option for all math items, in both English and Spanish language, are designed to help ensure that the assessments are accessible and that the information they provide is accurate.

For the reading assessments, I wanted to be sure that the tests functioned the same way for native speakers of English as they did for students learning English at school. My dissertation specifically addressed this question by examining how the third and fourth grade easyCBM reading measures functioned for English Language Learner (ELL) students with different levels of English proficiency (low English proficiency and high English proficiency) and their native English-speaking peers. My sample included 434 students split almost evenly between the two groups of ELLs and the native English speakers. All students were administered the same forms of the following easyCBM reading assessments: Letter Names, Letter Sounds, Phoneme Segmenting, Word Reading Fluency, Sentence Reading Fluency, and Passage Reading Fluency, and Multiple Choice Reading Comprehension.

Findings in my dissertation study suggest that perhaps students in the Low ELL group are operating at the Partial Alphabetic phase in English in contrast to their peers in the High ELL and Native Speaker groups, who appear to have moved to the Fully Alphabetic and Consolidated Alphabetic Phases. This difference could be explained by students being at different developmental phases in terms of English language acquisition, a difference with potential instructional as well as measurement implications.

Fine-tuning assessment and interpretation is key to informing instruction for EL students of varying abilities

The measures of early reading used in my dissertation study are typically used with younger students. The measures that loaded on the latent variable of Alphabetic Principle, for example, are generally administered to students in Kindergarten and first grade or students whose learning disabilities require out-of-grade testing. These measures lose much of their sensitivity in the upper grades because so many students have reached a mastery level in these skill areas by the time they are in third grade, and the resultant ceiling effect restricts the amount of information these measures are able to provide for older students. All the students in the current study were enrolled in third or fourth grade at the time of the study, grades when these measures would typically no longer be administered.

When ELL students first enter the U.S. educational system, they are typically assessed to determine their level of oral and written English proficiency. These assessments are used to place students in instructional programs. Instruction for students whose assessments indicate a lack of English proficiency generally focuses first on familiarizing students with the letters of the English alphabet and the sounds associated with those letters with a concurrent introduction to common English words to build vocabulary. Thus, for students in the Low ELL group, instruction is more likely to have been focusing on skills associated with the latent variable of Alphabetic Principle, whereas for students in the High ELL and Native Speaker groups, this is less likely to have been a recent instructional focus. Although my study examined the measurement of reading, it is important to note that in school settings, assessment and instruction are inextricably linked. Thus, measurement implications also carry potential instructional implications as well.

Implications for the future

According to government predictions, the number of ELL students enrolled in schools in the United States will continue to grow for the foreseeable future, and Spanish-speaking students will make up the majority of ELL students. It is imperative, then, that educators understand how to assess these students’ academic skills, monitor their progress in attaining additional academic skills, and interpret their test scores appropriately. Use of progress monitoring assessments can play a critically important role in helping teachers make informed instructional decisions. However, for those decisions to be appropriate, it is important that we understand the ways in which students with varying levels of English language proficiency differ from their native English-speaking peers.

For more information on my research, please visit

Learn more about how easyCBM can support your reading assessment.

View the webinar recording, featuring our panel of assessment experts: Dr. Alonzo along with Dr. Ted Hasselbring and Dr. Malbert Smith.

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