Alternate ACCESS for English Language Learners
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Central to the conceptual framework of the Alternate ACCESS for ELLs is the development of an assessment to allow ELLs with significant disabilities to demonstrate their English language proficiency (ELP) and English language growth. Current ELP assessment formats frequently prevent these students from meaningfully participating in traditional ELP assessments; in other words, ELLs with significant disabilities frequently have a difficult time, when using current assessment formats, demonstrating their actual ELP. Likewise, a lack of sensitivity in traditional ELP assessments could be misinterpreted that the ELL student with a significant disability has not made progress in ELP growth. However, in reality, it is more likely that the ELP measure is not sufficiently sensitive to detect small increments in ELP growth.

Alternate Assessment

Alternate assessments are designed for students with disabilities who are not able to participate meaningfully in regular assessment programs, even with the use of accommodations. Specifically, alternate assessments have been used to assess the academic performance of students with significant disabilities, as well as English language learners (ELLs) (Elliott, Compton, & Roach, 2007). Under Title I of the No Child Left Behind Act (2001), alternate assessments must be aligned with states' content standards, must yield separate results in the areas of reading/language arts, mathematics and science, and must be designed and implemented in a manner that supports use of the results as an indicator of Annual Yearly Progress (AYP). There are currently three alternate assessment approaches that can be used with English language learners (ELLs) and students with disabilities: evidence collection (portfolio) assessment, performance assessment, and rating scales (Elliott & Roach, 2007). The Alternate ACCESS is comprised of two of these approaches: evidence collection-based (portfolio) assessment and performance-based assessment.

Approaches to Alternate Assessment

There are three general approaches to alternate assessment:

  1. Evidence collection (portfolio)
  2. Rating scales
  3. Performance-based

Portfolios and rating scales can be categorized as approaches based on the collection of evidence (evidence-collection approach), whereas performance assessment requires the student to produce a response on demand (performance-based approach). These approaches vary in flexibility and standardization, with portfolio assessment offering the greatest flexibility and the lowest standardization, and performance-based assessments offering the highest standardization and the least flexibility. Within the 25 WIDA Consortium states, 14 states currently use evidence-collection approaches in their alternate academic content assessments, while six states use standardized performance-based approaches. Four states (Hawaii, Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota) use alternate content assessments which combine the evidence-collection approach and performance-based approaches.

Accountability Requirements 

As an essential and necessary component of each state's accountability system, alternate assessments are required to meet the regulations outlined in Title I of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB). According to the U.S. Department of Education's non-regulatory document titled Alternate Achievement Standards for Students with the Most Significant Cognitive Disabilities (2005), alternate assessments must meet the same standards of high technical quality -- validity, reliability, accessibility, objectivity, and consistency -- expected of other educational tests (i.e., Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing, AERA et al., 1999). In addition, alternate assessments must have an explicit structure, guidelines for determining which students may participate, clearly defined scoring criteria and procedures, and a report format that communicates student performance in terms of academic achievement standards.

Structure of the Alternate ACCESS

The Alternate ACCESS (AA) language proficiency levels were designed to expand upon the existing WIDA language proficiency levels that are used on the general ACCESS for ELLs® assessment (i.e., Level 1-Entering, Level 2-Beginning, Level 3-Developing, etc.) by increasing the sensitivity of the measure for students who have limited expressive and receptive language skills. The additional language proficiency levels include:

Initiating (Level AA 1.1): Student can respond to some part of the language demands required by the item given full assistance.

Exploring (Level AA 1.2): Student is in a stage of linguistic fluency building. Performance may be inconsistent but ranges from 25%-75% success of trials. Instruction results in significant gains in student use of language skills.

Engaging (Level AA 1.3): Student is able to maintain the linguistic demands/performance required by the item and can generalize the language skill without assistance or prompting on a regular basis. Student routinely meets defined linguistic proficiency level in a variety of settings.