Test Preparation for English Language Learners:
By Suzanne Irujo, ELL Outlook™ Contributing Writer
When I was teaching in a third-grade bilingual classroom, a mainstream fourth-grade teacher came to me with a question about a Russian student in her classroom. It was spring, and the school had just completed its yearly standardized testing. All the students in her class had made an effort to complete the required tests as well as they could, except Alexis, who had refused to even pick up his pencil. His teacher wanted to know why.
I knew Alexis; he came to my class for reading instruction. He was one of the best readers in my class. A motivated student whose oral English was quite good, Alexis was reading on a third-grade level and making excellent progress. I explained to his teacher that he had probably never seen a multiple-choice standardized test before and may have been so intimidated by the format that he felt safer not even trying. A little bit of instruction and practice in how to approach multiple-choice questions and how to fill out answer sheets might have given him all the confidence he needed.
That was back in the days when standardized testing was not the high-stakes undertaking that it is now. In many classrooms, students spend a good deal of time throughout the year preparing for standardized tests-practicing the specific reading, writing, and math skills that are on the tests; being taught strategies for answering multiple-choice and short-answer questions; learning how to fill in answer sheets. Teachers and parents complain that so much time spent on test preparation comes at the expense of subjects that are not tested, and school administrators counter that these programs help raise test scores, which is crucial under the requirements of No Child Left Behind.
When the students are ELLs, the question of what kind of test preparation is most appropriate is even more complex. For students who are still learning English, any kind of test becomes a test of their English language proficiency. This results in a large achievement gap between ELLs and English-proficient students on standardized tests. What is the best approach to increasing ELLs' test scores and reduce this achievement gap?
Good Instruction and Nothing More?
Many testing experts have been vocal in their opposition to excessive test preparation. Douglas Reeves, chairman and founder of the Center for Performance Assessment and the International Center for Educational Accountability, has said that "even if the state test is dominated by lower-level thinking skills and questions are posed in a multiple-choice format, the best preparation for such tests is not mindless testing drills, but extensive student writing, accompanied by thinking, analysis, and reasoning" [1, p. 92]. Very few people, however, advocate sitting students down in front of standardized tests with no practice in test-taking skills and strategies. The Chicago Public Schools Intranet page is typical of the advice given by many states. It begins with the slogan "Good instruction is the best test preparation" , but goes on to recommend two district-developed guides for preparing students to take standardized tests.
Bronwyn Coltrane of the Center for Applied Linguistics advocates teaching ELLs the discourse of tests and test-taking skills: "It is. .. beneficial to raise ELLs' awareness of the typical discourse and formats of standardized tests. ELLs may not be familiar with the kind of language that is used in tests, including many predictable patterns and phrases. It may also be beneficial to teach test-taking skills (e.g., how to approach a multiple-choice question, how to locate the main idea of a reading passage) to help prepare ELLs for specific types of test items they may encounter. Armed with a variety of test-taking skills and strategies, ELLs may be empowered to demonstrate their knowledge on a test, rather than being intimidated by unfamiliar terms and formats" .This preparation in how to approach test questions and answer sheets is especially important for ELLs who are recent immigrants. Even those who have some proficiency in English may never have been exposed to the format of U.S. standardized testing. Like Alexis, they may know a lot of the information that is tested and know enough English to understand the questions, but be too intimidated by the format to even try to answer.
Practice, Practice, Practice?
There is much more controversy about the extensive use of test preparation materials that drill students in the specific knowledge and skills of a particular test. Many schools are looking to commercial test preparation materials to help them improve test scores and thus reduce the possibility of being labeled "in need of improvement" under the No Child Left Behind regulations. More and more publishers are producing state-specific practice materials and practice tests. Obviously, test preparation materials of this type can be beneficial under some circumstances. For many years, students preparing to take SAT or GRE tests have been able to increase their scores with test preparation courses or books. In most cases, however, those who benefit are students who already have good academic backgrounds. For these students, test preparation is a supplement to academic preparation, not a substitute for it. For the many ELLs who lack good academic preparation in both their native language and in English, this kind of test preparation alone will not help them achieve better scores.
Another danger of overreliance on this kind of test preparation material is that it can come to dominate the curriculum. This concern was expressed by a group of advocates for parental choice in testing: "Will our school districts turn into massive test preparation centers where real learning is available only for those who will clearly have no trouble passing any portion of the test, and everyone else spends their time on remediation and test preparation?"  Many ELLs have large gaps in the civic knowledge needed to be good citizens in a democracy and in the scientific knowledge needed to do well in a technological society. Teaching the skills required for the reading/language arts and mathematics tests should not be at the expense of instruction in social studies and science.
Another view is advanced by Lily Wong Fillmore, a well-known expert on teaching ELLs. After criticizing "teaching to the tests" and the overemphasis on the skills included on the tests to the exclusion of other subjects and skills, she states, "What kids need. .. [is] the kind of English language skills that give them a fighting chance in the high stakes tests that they will be taking in school" . This kind of academic English is developed through constant attention to the ways in which language is used in academic texts.
Teachers who incorporate this explicit focus on language into their instruction extend students' vocabulary by "playing with words" whenever the opportunity arises through activities such as creating word families, playing synonym/antonym guessing games, commenting on multiple meanings, and helping students make connections to their own native languagesThey build students' understanding of text by explaining how structures such as passive sentences, embedded clauses, or relationships among verb tenses create specific meanings. They deepen students' comprehension of how language works by pointing out the vocabulary and structures that signal relationships such as cause and effect, comparison and contrast, or generalization and examples.
Is there a way that we could combine these approaches to test preparation for ELLs and come up with something that would really make a difference? What would happen if we provided ELLs with a solid academic foundation, including an explicit focus on understanding how academic language works, plus a reasonable amount of instruction in test-taking skills and the discourse of tests? It sounds logical, but it would not be easy.
We can't forget that testing is not done for its own sake; it's a part of standards-based instruction. And standards-based instruction only works when teachers know what the standards are, know where all students are in relation to the standards, and have the teaching skills necessary to bring those students who are behind up to the required level. When some of the students are ELLs, special teaching skills are required, skills that many teachers don't have. So one of the keys to improving ELLs' test scores is professional development in effective strategies for teaching ELLs.
Unfortunately, even with this kind of professional development, many teachers who work with ELLs do not have sufficient understanding of language to be able to provide the explicit focus on academic language that is needed . Both pre-service teacher education and in-service professional development must provide much more basic information about language if teachers are to be effective in developing the academic language that ELLs need in order to succeed on standardized tests.Once these two professional development needs have been addressed, giving ELLs a reasonable amount of instruction in the discourse of tests and test-taking skills will be easy. Until those needs are addressed, however, most test preparation materials for ELLs will be only a Band-Aid on a festering wound.
 Reeves, D. B. (2004). Accountability for Learning: How Teachers and School Leaders Can Take Charge. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Quoted in CT4ME.net, "Standardized Test Preparation and Tips for Success." http://www.ct4me.net/standardized_test_preparation.htm
 Chicago Public Schools. (2000). "Standardized Test Preparation." http://intranet.cps.k12.il.us/Assessments/Preparation/preparation.html
 Coltrane, B. (2002). English Language Learners and High-Stakes Tests: An Overview of the Issues. ERIC Digest EDO-FL-02-07. http://www.cal.org/resources/digest/0207coltrane.html
 Gavin, C., and Scribner, M. (n.d.). "Governor Proposes Eliminating Parent Options for High School Graduation Test." http://www.fairtest.org/arn/wiscopt.html
 Wong Fillmore, L. (2002). "Teachers Teaching, or Teachers Testing? A Question of Priorities." Handout from the Plenary Session at the National Association for Bilingual Education Annual Conference, Philadelphia. Snow, C. E., and Wong Fillmore, L. (2000). What Teachers Need to Know about Language. ERIC Clearinghouse on Language and Linguistics Special Report. http://www.cal.org/resources/teachers/teachers.pdf
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