A Vision for Using an Argument-Based Framework for Validity Applied to a Comprehensive System of Assessments for English Learners in Secondary Grades

By Margaret Heritage, Caroline Wylie, Molly Faulkner-Bond, and Aída Walqui

INTRODUCTION   |   PART 1   |   PART 2   |   PART 3    |   PART 4    |   PART 5    |   PART 6    |   PART 7    |   PART 8    |   PART 9   |   REFERENCES    |   APPENDICES

Part 3: Current Assessment System

Currently, the assessment experiences of English Learners and indeed, most, if not all K–12 students in the United States, are dominated by large-scale, year-end assessments (Figure 1) (e.g., Gordon, 2020; Volante et al., 2020). Figure 1 shows the current system with the dominance of large-scale standardized assessments, which both overwhelm and press on the design of classroom-based assessments.


Large-scale standardized assessments are designed to support accountability reporting and decision-making, but in practice are used for a variety of other purposes, including placement, accountability, classification and reclassification (Umansky & Porter, 2020).

Figure 1. Current Assessment System

Diagram showing the current assessment system indicating that large scale standardized assessment leads to classroom-based assessment.

While the current system does include other forms of assessment such as benchmark assessments, many of them are developed or selected primarily for their perceived relevance to large-scale assessments (Volante et al., 2020). Specifically, student scores on the year-end summative assessment are often treated as the most accurate and meaningful indicator of a student’s achievement and information collected throughout the year and often designed to predict this score and gauge student progress on this assessment, rather than to collect substantive, actionable information about student learning.

Support for Classroom Learning


Large-scale assessments reveal little about students’ responses in the context of classroom learning and have limited utility for the purpose of supporting language and content learning (Bailey & Durán, 2020). The validity of any assessment is prejudiced if it reinforces approaches to teaching which are inappropriate for the specified educational goals (Black, 1993). In this regard, the validity of current standardized assessments is prejudiced on the grounds that they can reinforce teaching practices that isolate language from content and analysis, which often means segregating English Learners from their non–English Learner peers, thereby removing important contextual factors that are critical to students’ development of content knowledge.


English Learners acquire additional language and content simultaneously by responding to “affordances” emerging from dynamic communicative situations (van Lier, 2000, 2004; van Lier & Walqui, 2012). For this reason, and in light of the perspective on language development described above, assessment of English Learners needs to reflect the nature of the learning context and students’ experience in learning content and language simultaneously. A validity concern in assessment for English Learners, who are both a linguistically and culturally heterogeneous group, is their interpretation of the assessment items that are potentially insensitive to the students’ backgrounds (e.g., Solano-Flores, 2006). Both the social and cultural nature of learning suggest the need for new ways to assess English Learners beyond traditional means such as standardized assessments (Durán, 2008).