Testing English Learners in English? Good Idea or Not.

  • 10 August, 2009

Last week, the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco upheld the right of California to administer achievement tests and high school exit exams in English to all students, no matter what their language background. Various education groups had challenged the practice of using English-only testing since federal law requires that second-language students “be assessed in a valid and reliable manner.”

As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, Marc Coleman, a lawyer for the plaintiffs complained that, “The court dodges the essential issue in the lawsuit, which is: What is the testing supposed to measure?”

Mr. Coleman gets an A from me for that question, but I wonder how many of the groups that he represents have a good answer to it?

The reason I’m curious is that I’ve received so many queries over the years about the practice of testing second-language students in English. The question often includes some kind of characterization of the practice as mean, stupid, or racist, so it is apparent that many professionals feel strongly about the impropriety of testing children in English.

No matter how angry the query, my response is always the same as Mr. Coleman’s: “What is the testing supposed to measure?” It obviously doesn’t satisfy the questioners, but whether they embrace such practices or loathe them, the appropriateness of English testing turns on the purpose of the testing.

If you are trying to find out how well your students do in reading English, I would not hesitate to test them in English.

“But,” I hear the critics asking,” won’t that make the test unreliable?”

  “No”, I answer. “Reliability has to do with stability of measurement. If a student does poorly on an English test because he or she doesn’t know English, that low performance will likely be very stable.”

  “But won’t an English test be invalid?”

  “Validity has to do with what the test purports to measure: if I’m trying to find out how well a student can read English, then this kind of test, all things being equal, would likely be a pretty good measure of that.”

“Yes, but won’t that kind of test lead to underestimates of how well that student is really doing, since he/she might be reading better in his or her home language?”

And that switcheroo is the key to this… because the questioner has now changed the purpose of the measure from finding out how well the student can read English to finding out how well he or she can read in any language. If the exit test is supposed to show that the student is academically-skilled in English, then an English test is sound and appropriate. If the purpose of the exit measure is to reveal whether or not students are skilled in any language, then the English test alone would obviously be insufficient.

  Certainly, I can tick off reasons why, diagnostically, a school might want to test a reading student in both English and the home language, at least in those cases in which the students are receiving some instruction in their home language (or have received such instruction in the past). And, I can think of all kinds of reasons why a school or state might test students in their home language, even on an exit exam:  “We recognize that Diego struggles with English, but we want to know how well he does math or what he knows about science information.” In such cases, testing in English might lower performance below the level that Diego could demonstrate if language difference wasn’t an issue.

But if you want to know how well a student can read English, by all means give an English reading test no matter what the students’ home language backgrounds or educational histories. That would be the only valid way to find out the answer to the question. The court got this one right.


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Testing English Learners in English? Good Idea or Not.


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.