Standardized Tests for English Language Learners

Hello colleagues, I want to invite a discussion about the standardized tests adult education programs across the country are using with English language learners. How is the test (or tests) you are using working for you for different levels of learners. For instance, how are they working for learners at the literacy level, especially for learners with limited formal schooling? How are the tests working with English learners who have recently transitioned to the Adult Basic Education level? Do you see any interesting patterns in learning gains based on learners' levels? As you see it, what are the pros and cons of your testing instruments? What lessons learned can you pass along to your colleagues? Do you have burning questions?

Looking forward to hearing some words of wisdom on this issue!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Assessment & AELL CoPs


Susan, I would like to know if there is a standardized curriculum which people follow, from absolute beginners to "advanced". In other words Standardized tests only make sense if the students have covered subjects that are being tested. I  personally would like to know so that I could make adjustments to my lessons to coincide with regular classes.


Hi Paul and all, As you may know, any adult education program that operates with federal funds are required to administer certain standardized tests to all learners. Curricular decisions are left to states and programs. If any members are working in programs that operate with a "standardized curriculum," perhaps we'll hear responses from them here.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Assessment & AELL CoPs

Thanks Susan for asking this question. I also have a burning question about tests used for oral language development. I have administered the Best Plus and am looking for other tests. Concerning reading and writing our program currently uses the Best Literacy exam with positive results and we use the TABE test with Pre-skills training students. However It is an expensive exam, $100 a test using the computerized version and time consuming for students approximately four and a half hours if they take the entire test. We have begun to administer only the Math and Reading portion which takes about two and a half hours.





I work at Literacy Source, a state-funded community-based organization in Washington state, and our state requires CASAS testing.  The CASAS test does not align to our curriculum. Our state has recently adopted the CCRS as standards, and the CASAS, although nominally re-aligned, does not reflect the new foci of the standards on mathematical practices, intertextuality, citing evidence etc.   So we have the general problems that I think most programs have with these tests not aligning to instruction.  We have both pre-literate ESL learners and ABE 1 learners, and the CASAS reading test in particular, does not even give much diagnostic reading information or show much progress for these learners.  


We use some other tests, such as a phonics inventory and site word lists, which provide better information for reading instruction as well as show progress, but these are not nationally-recognized standardized tests.   These more specific reading skills test do a better job of measuring progress, especially for literacy learners.  We are using publicly available, free, tests off of LINCS (Word Reading Tests, Sylvia Green Inventory, Dolch List, and a fluency test) and I'd be happy to talk about the pros and cons of different tools for our population.   We use these to be able to determine the reading profile of our learners, which is helpful for instruction, as well as to measure progress.   We also get a writing sample, which is standardized for our program, and goes from writing the alphabet, copying, writing down letter for sounds, writing sentences, and on the high-end, writing a GED-type social studies response.  This is also useful for placement, a formative assessment, and shows progress, and very helpful for our program but not for national reporting.  We also have an Oral screen as a measure of ESL speaking (we don't use the BEST), which is very useful for placement but doesn't provide as much robust evidence of progress.  I'd love suggestions for other free and easy to use oral assessments if any are out there.   None of these tools are specifically aligned to our curriculum, which is different for ESL and ABE until ESL 5, which merges with ABE 3, and we use them for both ABE and ESL learners as applicable. 

Cat Howell

Hello Cat, Thank you for sharing your program's assessment practices. For which learners and at what levels are you using the "publicly available, free, tests off of LINCS (Word Reading Tests, Sylvia Green Inventory, Dolch List, and a fluency test)"? Would you be able to connect us to the fluency test you are using?

You can find these LINCS resources here:  Sylvia Greene Inventory, Word Reading Test, Dolch List.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP

Hello colleagues, I'm interested in hearing from members about English learners who are transitioning from ESL levels to ABE levels. Have the assessments you are using been helpful in determining when a student is ready for this transition? Are you seeing reliable learning gains for English learners testing into the lowest ABE levels.

It would  be interesting to hear from those who are now using TABE CLAS-E about how this test is working compared to other assessments such as TABE, CASAS and BEST.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL & Assessment CoPs


Susan, many Massachusetts programs use the TABE CLAS-E to track progress of ESOL learners and to report gains to NRS.  My experience, and that of lots of fellow teachers I talk with, is that the TABE focuses on functional uses of English, which has been the traditional focus of ESOL classes for as long as I can remember.  The TABE reading and writing tests stick pretty close to everyday types of documents and practical writing tasks, such as writing a note to a daughter's teacher to explain an absence.  If there is a college and career focus in the ESOL classes, or even in certain units or class levels, I can't say that the TABE CLAS-E would be a good predictor of how well a student would do with those sorts of classroom activities--for example, summarizing a text dealing with earth sciences.  As soon as the ESOL students transition to ABE classes, they must contend with the increasing emphasis on college and career goals and the necessity of successfully passing credential exams and doing well on college placement tests.  By the same token, now their official learning gains tests mirror those same sorts of assessments--measuring for ability to infer, think logically, and dig deep for whatever academic knowledge they've amassed over the years. 

In the Charlestown, Massachusetts program that I teach at we have begun to back-fill more ABE-like curricula into higher level ESOL classes.  One thing that has provided us with some useful direction is the Student Achievement in Reading (STAR) initiative, which has vetted teaching strategies in reading that are strongly backed by research.  To do STAR-approved strategies effectively, teachers have to test diagnostically--and that data has shown us that ESOL students come into ABE classes with very low levels of the type of vocabulary words that frequently appear in print across all content areas (coordinate, diffuse, demonstrate, analyze) and, in addition, very few practical comprehension strategies under their belts (re-reading, asking mental questions, tapping into prior knowledge.)  It's too early to tell, but the ESOL teacher is on board for using more "Tier 2" vocabulary and comprehension strategies for reading, and writing tasks that build off the new vocabulary and newly comprehended knowledge.  I can say at this point, however, that the students get right into it.

Hello Carey, and all, Thank you, Carey, for sharing your insights about standardized testing with English learners who are transitioning from NRS ESL levels to NRS ABE levels. I wonder if you can clarify what you meant when you wrote: "By the same token, now their official learning gains tests mirror those same sorts of assessments--measuring for ability to infer, think logically, and dig deep for whatever academic knowledge they've amassed over the years." What "learning gains tests" are you referring to here? Do you mean the placement tests students take to enter post secondary training/education, such as the Accuplacer and others?

It's interesting to hear that your program is focusing on the reading skills emphasized in the Student Achievement in Reading (STAR) with English learners. (Check out the link to learn about STAR.) It would be good to hear from other members who have been following the STAR methods with English learners who are transitioning to ABE. Members, please share your insights!

As you note, there is no doubt that teachers working with students at this level need to focus on explicit vocabulary instruction, particularly on those general, high-utility, academic words we refer to as Tier 2 vocabulary. I have found the Academic Word List, which was ascertained through corpus studies conducted by Averil Coxhead from the University of New Zealand, to be extremely helpful.

I think we all agree with you that vocabulary is a huge factor in English learners' reading comprehension. There is a lot more to say about vocabulary instruction, so members' comments and questions about that are welcome.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL & Assessment CoPs

I'm ESL Beginning level Teacher. I'm always worked with vocabulary during the first thirty minutes of the class.My assassments basicaly are for vocabulary and complete sentences using grammar: verb, verb tenses, subject and predicate, pronouns, possessive pronouns.

Motivation and Persistence endure when the AE Learner is self-motivated to begin with.  The most committed learners

are ready to persevere and adjust to the needs of the AE program.  In my teaching experience, it is easier to support these students, whether face to face or virtually.  They will find the means to come to class and complete their assigned tasks.  They also find means to take charge of their own learning.  They have short and long term goals set in place, even alternatives in case their plans change.

However, our AE program caters to all types of learners so the AE teacher needs to apply proven strategies to support the students who lack self-motivation.  This is the case where we help the students set near-term goals and long -term goals.  The teacher needs to motivate them by helping them find the value of attending the class and finishing the course and why attendance and class participation are crucial.  

The AE teacher chunks the lesson and apply the principle of Gradual Release of Responsibility.  The teacher models that a task can be done, bit by bit.  A lesson can be learned a little at a time with repeated examples and element of patience until the student will be able to do it on his own and master it.  As daily topics are taught, chunks accumulate and eventually complete the skills necessary not only to pass a test but also to solve real world problems.  

To support the AE students, teacher gathers help from the program manager to the teacher aides and transition specialists to help the students manage their daily family lives, work and their education.   Different entities share the responsibility of helping the students become successful.  Teacher and other AE staff devote their time outside of the classroom to monitor the students and ensure that they are always in the loop.

The AE teacher finds a way on how students can collaborate to each other.  Group work becomes part of the daily class routine where students discuss about the lesson to peers who were previously absent or are not fully understanding the lesson.   Study buddies or a learning circle may be formed by the students using social networks or simply giving personal information to classmates as a means to communicate as needed.  Such collaboration makes the students feel at ease interacting with each other and giving respect to each other.

The consistently persistent teacher who incorporates the foregoing practices will influence students to persist until their desired goals are achieved.  My recommendation, however, is for staff recruiting AE students to develop a method of screening self-motivated students to recruit those who are really committed so we can lessen the percentage of dropouts in the AE program.   F M


  1. Which of the strategies shared by subject matter experts Rob Jenkins and Maricel Santos in the PowerPoint presentation stand out for you? Which would you most like to try? (Jot down your ideas in your course journal or in the LINCS Community of Practice discussion).

    I actually loved the idea of students jotting down in their journal their weekly self-assessment of listening skills, so that students can reflect and see their progress first hand.

    I also loved the idea of creating and exchanging a contact information tool, so that students can get to know each other and perhaps even help each other out with carpooling, homework assignments, etc. 
  2. In what ways have teachers in your program worked together to boost learner motivation and persistence? (Use the "Motivating Adult Learners to Persist" course discussion thread in the LINCS Evidence-Based Professional Development Community of Practice, to share your ideas with other practitioners and see what other course participants have said).

Our division has regular PD planning time where teachers come and exchange tips and strategies. We also have many committees to aid with students learning and persistence. We also have full-time Completion and Transition Specialist that aid students.

I haven't come across a standardized test that works well for the literacy level in reading/listening for ELLs with no formal education, particularly for older students. Our program is transitioning away from CASAS to using the BEST AB for reading and writing for Level 1 students and TAB-E for higher levels. This is our transition year. Will let you know how it goes!

I have come across a standardized test that works well for the literacy level in reading/listening for ELLs with no formal education, particularly for older students. Our program is transitioning away from the USA learns to using the BEST AB for reading and writing for Level 1 students and Best plus for higher levels. This is our Virtual transition year. I Will let you know how it goes!

Strategies of Motivating Adults to Persist

· Finding value

· Providing choice and autonomy

· Encouraging collaboration and cooperation

· Overcoming systemic barriers to persistence

· Addressing negative effects of stereotypes

Standardized tests are a double-edged sword. On one hand, they urge people to stretch themselves to meet a goal. On the other, they discourage people and throw barriers up for people already marginalized and vulnerable. As a HiSET (High School Equivalency) instructor, I am enraged when students have un-diagnosed learning disabilities (and do not have the means to get a diagnosis) and are unable to get accommodations they need to be successful on the HiSET tests. Additionally, I hate that some of my students who are single parents and trying to get their High School Equivalency diploma are stopped in their tracks by these difficult exams. One of my students is living pay-check to pay-check with several mouths to feed. She has passed all sections but math. She wants her HiSET so she can apply for higher-wage jobs to better provide for her family. While she has been working hard on math for over a year now, she still has a long way to go before she'll be able to pass her math exam. I suspect that she has a learning disability that makes it difficult for her to deal with abstract numbers. Why isn't there a system that takes into account her effort rather than just the result of her HiSET exam? I want my students to learn, to push themselves, and to love learning. I appreciate that they need to challenge themselves to pass standardized tests, but I hate that these tests do not accurately reflect upon their own growth and journey. Tests that set a standard that must be met always end up being a part of a system that creates barriers for progress.

Hello Emrie,

Thanks for raising this important concern about the limitations of standardized tests for assessing for adult high school equivalency. There is at least one nationally available competency-based alternative now, and in a few states there have been, and may still be, others.

A current alternative is the CASAS National External Diploma Program (NEDP) although it is only available in ten states.  The NEDP is not a test; it's a state-approved competency-based adult diploma assessment system. It's not a quick fix but, for some students, it is a much-needed alternative to taking standardized tests.

Here's another possibility which may or may not be possible in your state, but that could be  _considered_  by any state. It could be pilot tested, in particular with math or writing, the two areas that are often stumbling blocks for adult learners. I'll pose this as a question below because I don't know if any state has done this. The idea is a state-approved "mixed solution" to awarding a high school equivalency certificate or diploma.

Question, for anyone: Would your state office that controls the award of a high school equivalency diploma or certificate be willing to accept the results from currently-approved standardized tests  _mixed_  with approved competency-based assessments, for example from the NEDP?

There may be challenges for a state in doing this, for example the complexity of this kind of certification, or othefrs I am not aware of, but could they be overcome without compromising state standards for high school equivalency? Would any states be willing to try this on a _ pilot_  basis?

Some states offer the option of two or even three different high school equivalency exams but, as far as I know, do not offer an opportunity to mix test results. I have wondered, for example, if a student begins with one HSE exam, let's say the GED, but then decides to take the HiSET, for a remaining test, would a state recognize this mix and count passing results from more than one exam toward the HSE certificate or diploma? Possibly even on a case-by-case basis, or at least as a pilot?

Another question for anyone: What other alternatives are, or should be, available to enable adult learners to demonstrate equivalent competence to graduating high school seniors for a high school equivalency diploma or certificate?

David J. Rosen