Standardized Tests for English Language Learners in Massachusetts

Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

In this lesson, you have an overview of the standardized tests that English Language Learners (ELLs) take in Massachusetts. This overview includes the content of each test and other key aspects of such assessments.

A bit on the Past

Let's go back to before the 90s. The Department of Education authorities are worried because Massachusetts students lag way behind other states on basic skills in math and reading. The student population of the state includes English Language Learners (ELLs). Now, let's travel in time to the current situation. Massachusetts students are now #1 in the country for reading and math! This happened, partly, thanks to testing. Testing is the process that allows you to assess the progress students make on a given subject. Now, you might wonder about the purposes of testing.

Purposes of Testing

The primary purpose of statewide assessment or testing is to determine if students have the skills they need. The other purpose is to provide schools with data so that they can focus on what is needed. For example, if students have low scores in reading, this is a wake-up call to adjust instruction in reading so that students improve.

Also, testing has the purpose to inform parents with real data on how their children are doing in school.

Finally, statewide assessment helps the state determine where to focus its efforts. Now, let's focus on what standardized tests are in place in Massachusetts for English Language Learners (ELLs).

Standardized Tests for ELLs

To easily learn about standardized tests for ELLs, let's use an example. Amara is a student from Ethiopia now living in Massachusetts. Amara's first language is Amharic and, thus, Amara is an ELL. Let's now look at what standardized tests Amara takes in Massachusetts.

WIDA Screener

When new students join schools in Massachusetts, their parents fill in a 'Home Language Survey' (HLS), which asks about the primary language the student uses. If a language other than English is present, then the school identifies such student as an ELL. However, such student needs to be placed at the right level. To do this, there is the WIDA Screener. Before we learn about this test, let's learn about the WIDA Consortium, which is an organization that designs tests for diverse purposes. Massachusetts uses WIDA as a test designer. Now, the WIDA Screener is an English language test applicable to K-12 students at any time of the year. The results of this test help teachers decide if the student needs ELL classes. The WIDA Screener has, in this order, sections that test potential ELLs on listening, reading, speaking, and writing. Aside from a score for each skill, students get three other scores: overall, oral, and literacy.

Amara had to take the WIDA Screener to see her level because she is a new student in Massachusetts. However, for students who transfer to a new school, educators use the scores such students get in ACCESS, which is another test we explore in a different section.


There is the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). This is the set of standardized tests that all Massachusetts students take and the set includes questions that relate to the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks. The curriculum includes English Language Arts (ELA), Math knowledge and Science, Technology and Engineering (STE). When it comes to ELA, this means Massachusetts students take tests on reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills but also in literacy skills for subjects such as History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. Scores for the MCAS vary depending on grade level and subject.

For example, as Amara is in fourth grade, when she takes the MCAS, she uses her skills in a variety of aspects such as integration of knowledge and ideas when reading; include facts, definitions, and concrete details when writing; and reasoning in topics that relate to math, social studies, etc. when speaking and listening. These are only a few examples of the skills Amara displays as she takes the MCAS.

Within the MCAS, there is an alternative for students who have significant disabilities, which means that even accommodations do not really make it fair for them to take the MCAS. The alternative is the MCAS-Alt, which stands for 'Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System -Alternate Assessment'. This is a portfolio that a teacher collects annually for students with disabilities. The portfolio includes work samples, instructional data, videotapes, and any other information that shows the student's performance on a given subject.

Luckily, only 1% of statewide students in Massachusetts need the MCAS-Alt.


ELLs have to take tests on the four basic language skills. These are reading, writing, listening, and speaking. As you can imagine, in order to assess all these four skills schools need a really well-designed test. Luckily, there is the test the WIDA Consortium designs and that Massachusetts schools use. The test is called ACCESS, which ELLs in Massachusetts take annually in January or February and determines ELLs' progress in English.

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