Bilingual Students: Academic Testing and the English Language Learner

There is no doubt we are a society that does not take academic testing lightly. While there is some reform in progress, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 continues to ensure our students are tested for reading and math annually while in grades 3 through 8.  Beyond these years, students prepare for the SATs and ACTs which determine entry into competitive universities.  Let’s not forget the exams also determine if the students will receive scholarships to attend these schools, which for many, are crucial to pursue an education beyond high school.


If these tests were not difficult enough for the monolingual students and simultaneous bilingual students (acquired both languages at the same time) who were born in the United States, they are nearly impossible for many bilingual students who acquire English sequentially (after acquiring the home language).  It is projected that by the 2030s, 40% of the public school population in the United States will be bilingual.  Research indicates that the older the student, the more difficult it is to acquire the language in time to keep up with these strict testing requirements.  These tests are enough to cause stress to any child, let alone a child who is taking the time to acquire a new language.  And where did this child come from?  Does the child have a well-educated family and come from an excellent school?  While this may be the case, the child may have come from an unfortunate scenario such as a war-torn country, resulting in gaps in academic learning due to these unfortunate circumstances.  The move to the US may also have resulted in a gap in academics.



So how do we help as educators you ask?  The first step in determining the child’s abilities is to establish the level of academic knowledge in the individual’s home language; i.e. to perform diagnostic evaluation in L1.  In addition, some background information pertaining to the child’s history may seem unimportant, yet it may be key.  In some cultures, it is just not common to engage in a learning conversation (think socratic dialogue) with a teacher in the classroom and considered disrespectful and inappropriate.  So while this student may understand quite a bit, it is just not OK to say anything about it.  A writing sample may be a better indicator of the student’s academic level.

Sounds easy enough to evaluate a child’s language comprehension and production in the home language, but having worked as a student clinician in the New York City area, I must say it is not always so clear.  The language may not be common to the area and finding a bilingual speech-language pathologist for that particular language may be difficult.  In addition, even if a speech-language pathologist is located who speaks that language, it may not always work out.  The testing may be unreliable due to the difference in culture or the clinician may not have the same background in the language.   I speak Spanish well, having passed the New York state bilingual exam for clinicians (B.E.A. – Spanish); however, I have great difficulty in comprehending slang from many Latin American countries, with the exception of Argentina.  I know an Arabic-speaking speech-language pathologist from Palestine who does not feel comfortable evaluating individuals from Tunisia who speak Arabic, due to the differences in language.  This SLP has a Ph.D., mind you, and years of experience in the field.

So what is the next step if these situations arise?  If there is not a language barrier with the parents, talk to them.  Show respect for their home language and culture and state that you would like to learn more.  Even with language barriers, family members may be able to communicate the language abilities of their child.  I have retrieved critical information from siblings in circumstances where parents did not speak English.

Once the language ability in the home language is determined, be patient with the child who is acquiring English.  Research has shown the development of the second language is often not gradual and gaps in language may be apparent which sometimes resemble a learning disability or a language disorder.  Sometimes there is a silent period when acquiring the second language where the child will stop speaking altogether in an effort to comprehend the new language.  For a preschool child, this may be up to a year of silence.

Uninterrupted cognitive development is very important for the bilingual child.  For those emergent bilingual students who are just beginning to comprehend and use the language, instruction in the home language is often key in the beginning.  Let’s treat each bilingual student as an individual and address the needs according to the child’s language level and ability.  Finally, do not assume a child is ready to take a test in the second language, just because the child is conversing successfully with classmates or with the teacher.  Basic interpersonal communicative skills (BICS) may develop first and this is not an indication that the student is fluent in the second language.  Get to know the students and their academic abilities.  When necessary give more support, whether the students need a few additional hours of instruction outside of the classroom or a tutor who helps them daily.  Let them make their way from the shallow end of the pool even if they seem ready to dive into the deep end.

Brice, A., & Roseberry-Mckibbon, C.  (n.d.). Acquiring English As a Second Language  What’s “Normal,” What’s Not. Retrieved From:

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