In This Article Psychometric Issues in the Assessment of English Language Learners

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Factors Affecting Assessments for English-Language Learners
  • Linguistic Issues in the Assessment of English-Language Learners
  • Reliability
  • Validity
  • Validity of Classification
  • Psychometric Issues in the Use of Accommodations for Students Learning the English Language
  • Summary

Education Psychometric Issues in the Assessment of English Language Learners
Jamal Abedi
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0147


English-language learners (ELLs) are a growing population among the primary and secondary school-age population in the English-speaking world, including Australia, the United Kingdom, North America, and parts of Asia where English is still the primary language of instruction. With an increasing focus on the achievement gap among ELLs and their peers, psychometric issues are important when focusing on the needs of this particularly vulnerable population. ELLs have less evidence of proficiency on standardized tests, have lower secondary-education graduation rates than their peers, and often require more remediation when in post-secondary education (e.g., colleges and universities). Linguistic factors are of paramount importance within studies regarding ELLs and their academic outcomes and achievements because these factors may interfere with students’ actual knowledge of content areas such as mathematics, science, and history. The reliability and validity of assessments used to assess both the English-language development of ELLs, but their knowledge of content, also come into question. Efforts in devising and providing assessment accommodations for ELLs have also been inconclusive. Understanding the current state of knowledge regarding the psychometric issues for ELLs is critical in understanding and addressing the needs of these students.

General Overviews

Assessment outcomes play an extremely important role in the academic career of all students, particularly for ELLs, when used for accountability and end-of-year assessments (Menken 2010). Of concern to many educational stakeholders are the reliability and validity of standardized tests in regard to ELLs and other at-risk student populations such as students with disabilities (SWDs) or limited English proficient (LEP) students (Chu and Flores 2011). These concerns are validated when numerous empirical studies have taken issue with accurate measures of students’ knowledge and skills absent of linguistic demands often associated with being an ELL student (Abedi 2002a; Abedi 2002b; Abedi 2004; Sullivan 2011; Solano-Flores 2006; Young, et al. 2008 [both cited under Factors Affecting Assessments for English-Language Learners]). Moreover, Abedi and Faltis 2015 argues that care must be taken in interpreting scores on high-stakes assessments that are far too often taken only one point in time and have serious consequences on students’ academic trajectories (Artiles and Klingner 2006, Abedi 2006, LaCelle-Peterson and Rivera 1994 [both cited under Factors Affecting Assessments for English-Language Learners], Solórzano 2008). Consensus has been reached in questioning the accuracy and fairness of standardized tests on ELLs. In addition, there have been efforts to explore other mechanisms that may contribute to construct-irrelevant factors (Abedi 2006, Avenia-Tapper and Llosa 2015), such as misclassification of ELLs as SWDs or as ELLs with learning disabilities (Abedi 2006, Artiles and Klingner 2006, Chu and Flores 2011, Sullivan 2011) and instructional programs and teachers of ELLs (Abedi and Faltis 2015). Regardless of the focus the research took, ELLs are underperforming on certain measurements due to the high linguistic demand that is required to take these measures.

  • Abedi, J. 2002a. Assessment and accommodations of English language learners: Issues, concerns, and recommendations. Journal of School Improvement 3.1: 83–89.

    E-mail Citation »

    This article presents a meta-analysis of the literature on ELL test accommodation. The validity and effectiveness of current practices are reviewed. These include extended test-taking time, modifying the exam, and allowing ELLs to use glossaries or dictionaries.

  • Abedi, J. 2002b. Standardized achievement tests and English language learners: Psychometrics issues. Educational Assessment 8.3: 231–257.

    DOI: 10.1207/S15326977EA0803_02E-mail Citation »

    This article indicates that achievement test scores may be influenced by students’ language backgrounds. Results of this research show that students who are ELL generally do not perform as well in content areas such as math as non-ELL students. Although ELL students did not perform as well overall on these subjects, the difference was less varied in math than in other subjects.

  • Abedi, J. 2004. The No Child Left Behind Act and English language learners: Assessment and accountability issues. Educational Researcher 33.1: 4–14.

    DOI: 10.3102/0013189X033001004E-mail Citation »

    The No Child Left Behind Act has many issues due to gaps within the act that do not account for students with limited English proficiency. One of these problems concerns assessment tools, which may not be a valid tool to measure LEP student performance. The assessment tools may be too linguistically complex, which fosters failure on the tests and curricula.

  • Abedi, J., and C. Faltis. 2015. Introduction. In Special issue: Teacher assessment and the assessments of students with diverse learning needs. Review of Research in Education 39:vii–xiv.

    DOI: 10.3102/0091732X14558995E-mail Citation »

    The benefits of assessments are universally acknowledged in academia; however, many assessments that are factors for important decisions regarding teacher or student outcomes may be administered only one time and may not be revisited to account for impact of construct-irrelevant factors. If these assessments have any issues with validity or reliability, outcomes can be detrimental.

  • Artiles, A. J., and J. K. Klingner. 2006. Introduction. In Special issue: Forging a knowledge base on English language learners with special needs: Theoretical, population, and technical issues. Teachers College Record 108.11: 2187–2194.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9620.2006.00778.xE-mail Citation »

    Emergence of statistics that show ELL students are overrepresented in districts that had diverse populations calls for the importance of gaining more knowledge of ELL students with special needs. Further rationale is discussed in this article.

  • Avenia-Tapper, B., and L. Llosa. 2015. Construct relevant or irrelevant? The role of linguistic complexity in the assessment of English language learners’ science knowledge. Educational Assessment 20.2: 95–111.

    DOI: 10.1080/10627197.2015.1028622E-mail Citation »

    This study discusses the construct validity of assessments used to test science knowledge of ELLs. According to the authors, there should be an overlap between linguistic features of test items and the language in which the content is learned, a practice that does not seem to be an important consideration in the construction of current assessments.

  • Chu, S.-Y., and S. Flores. 2011. Assessment of English language learners with learning disabilities. Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas 84.6: 244–248.

    DOI: 10.1080/00098655.2011.590550E-mail Citation »

    This article discusses the problems of assessing ELL students who have learning disabilities. The amounts of measurement error common in these existing assessments threaten the validity and reliability of these screening instruments. The authors also present other issues that can help educators correctly assess if ELL students have learning disabilities or are just performing poorly on achievement tests because they are still learning English.

  • Menken, K. 2010. NCLB and English language learners: Challenges and consequences. In Special issue: Integrating English language learners in content classes. Theory into Practice 49.2: 121–128.

    DOI: 10.1080/00405841003626619E-mail Citation »

    This article calls into question the practice of high-stakes testing of ELL students using English-based exams, which can have a negative impact on test scores (since ELL students are still learning English). Part of the reason that ELL students perform so poorly on statewide exams could be due to the fact that those assessments frequently contain words that ELL students do not understand.

  • Solórzano, R. W. 2008. High stakes testing: Issues, implications, and remedies for English language learners. Review of Educational Research 78.2: 260–329.

    DOI: 10.3102/0034654308317845E-mail Citation »

    The author states that assessment testing based on reforms such as the No Child Left Behind Act is dubbed high-stakes testing because of the outcomes that may come from the results. Because many of these assessments are standardized in English, implications for ELL students may be harmful and misleading at best.

  • Sullivan, A. L. 2011. Disproportionality in special education identification and placement of English language learners. Exceptional Children 77.3: 317–334.

    DOI: 10.1177/001440291107700304E-mail Citation »

    ELL students are being misclassified as SWDs and placed in classes or programs that may not be a good fit for promoting their education. In this study, ELL students are reported as not being presented with the same educational opportunities as their non-ELL counterparts.

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