Dual Language Schools2020

Author Photo: Kathleen Leos


Endless discussions abound regarding effective and accurate methods of assessing dual language development and academic content knowledge for multiple language learners. Noted psychometric experts have long debated the efficacy of evaluating language learners due to the complexities involved in accurately parsing language from content. It is virtually impossible to separate the two. Learning academic content in multiple languages is intrinsically influenced by language, and language development impacts demonstrating content knowledge in both languages. Therefore, the notion of assessing language acquisition separate from content knowledge is essentially artificial since we learn language and content simultaneously. However, states, districts, and classroom teachers are required to report the progress learners make in developing two languages while evaluating a learners’ academic knowledge using state standardized assessments which are not designed with dual language learning in mind.



The passage of Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015 changed the focus of assessment and accountability for dual language learners. Title I emphasizes evaluating a language learner’s progress and attainment of developing English due to language’s role in learning. As several education researchers noted, ‘Language is the Key to Reading and Learning’. Since dual language programs teach academic content using primary language as well as English, it is important to ascertain a student’s academic knowledge using valid assessment data in both languages. This not only provides an accurate understanding of what the learner knows but also expedites how to design instruction for diverse language learners.

Teachers, according to ESSA, can request discreet item level data from state approved, valid and reliable language, and content assessments in order to organize and implement effective, evidence-based instructional strategies which address individual student educational needs.

Photo for: 2020


Photo for: 2020

The key to orchestrating effective instruction for dual language learners is access to valid assessment data from several sources.

The Education Neuroscience Foundation suggests that instruction for every student begins during the summer with districts providing schools and teachers detailed student profiles which include:

  • In-depth demographic information including prior schooling, program approach, insight into the social, emotional, and cultural aspects of the learner;
  • Discreet item level assessment data from valid language assessments in the primary language and English (not just a language level descriptors), with a detailed analysis of the language components that students find easy or difficult to navigate in each language;
  • State standardized assessment data, in two languages, with a thorough description of the state academic standard in each content area that needs to be addressed;
  • Providing teachers’ individualized student folders containing the specific information outlined above can minimize instructional ‘guesswork’ and give educators an opportunity to effectuate differentiated student lessons the moment students enter the classroom eager to learn.


There are numerous approaches to evaluating the impact daily instruction has on a student’s effort to develop dual languages and demonstrate grade-level content knowledge. Using ongoing evaluation tools such as observation protocols, computer adapted assessments, videos, collaborative monitoring, and portfolio management allow educators to adjust instruction quickly instead of waiting for mid to end of year assessment data. Additionally, continual assessment aligns well with innovative instruction such as project- based learning, storytelling, technology programs and other proven evidence-based instructional approaches.


What is the goal of assessment? Assessment is designed to measure the progress and attainment of specific academic goals while providing valid and reliable data which indicate what a student knows and can do in relation to state academic content standards. The challenge for Dual Language Learners is having a level of language proficiency to access an academic content assessment in English while learning English. In other words, it is difficult to decipher whether the state standardized assessment measures student knowledge or the learner’s level of language proficiency in a particular language. To address this challenge, states allow schools to offer English and dual language learners specific linguistic accommodations which address a potential language barrier without invalidating the results of the test.

Academic Content Assessment Accommodations

To date, there is only one researched-based accommodation that provides English or dual language learners necessary access to academic content assessments without invalidating results; it is an English dictionary. However, “introducing an English dictionary only during the administration of a state academic assessment is not effective. For any accommodation to be successful in the testing situation, students must have experience with it during regular instruction.” (1).

Additionally, NO ACCOMMODATION may be used during the administration of a state approved language or dual language assessment. The purpose of language assessments is to gather information and data regarding a language learner ‘making progress and attainment’ in acquiring two languages. Therefore, there is NO language accommodation that will NOT alter the test results.


Modifications are changes made to the testing environment which accommodate and benefit ALL students. There is no testing modification specific to dual language learners that does not offer equal benefit to non-DLLs. Collectively, states offer at least 70-75 testing modifications which include, instructor-read assessments, breaks during assessment administration, extended time etc.


Unfortunately, teachers, schools, and districts that embrace dual language development and academic instruction are at a disadvantage. There still exists a muddled approach to assessing Dual Language Learners which impacts learning. Given what we know from education neuroscience regarding how the brain acquires languages and content, new systems of dual language assessments that align to new dual language academic content standards can be designed and implemented. This is the only way equal access to equal educational opportunities will be afforded to and benefit all students in any educational setting throughout the United States.

Teach the way the brain learns!

1)Kieffer, M. J., Rivera, M., Francis, D. J. (2012). Practical guidelines for the education of English language learners: Book 4. Research-based recommendations for the use of accommodations in large-scale assessments: 2012 Update. Portsmouth, NH: Center on Instruction.

To view more of Kathleen’s work, visit her column.