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CogAT English Language Learners K-12 Ability Assessments

Measuring Reasoning Skills Among English Learner Students

Dr. Joni M. Lakin
Written By Dr. Joni M. Lakin
On Jan 15, 2020
2 minute read

Ability tests differ from achievement tests. While achievement tests measure classroom learning, ability tests prompt students to demonstrate thinking they have learned from everyday life, beyond the formal classroom. When we measure verbal, quantitative, or figural reasoning, we ask students to recognize patterns, make inferences about relationships, and use their creative problem-solving skills in each of those content domains. In verbal domains, this means students must apply their existing knowledge of words, infer the meaning of new words, comprehend incomplete verbal information, use context clues, and recognize cognates (words that look similar in different languages).

With the growing number of English learner (EL) students in many schools, educators have been struggling with how to appropriately adapt assessment systems to their needs. When it comes to ability testing, many educators believe they need to switch to a “nonverbal,”—for example, figural or reasoning—task alone. However, evaluating EL students’ ability to reason with language provides useful insight for planning their instruction.

The challenge is that we can’t interpret the scores in the same way we do for other students. When we think about the experience of EL students, it becomes clear that verbal reasoning skills are absolutely critical for them. Short and Fitzsimmons suggest that EL students do “double the work,” because they acquire content knowledge like other students while also developing English language proficiency. The ability to learn new words and grammar involves the same verbal skills discussed before—inferring the meaning of new words, comprehending instruction from incomplete information, using context clues, and recognizing cognates.

So, contrary to popular belief, it is more important to measure verbal reasoning skills for EL students because this helps us recognize when students will struggle more with acquiring English proficiency. It also allows us to provide support and differentiated instruction for these students. That said, obviously a fully English-based test will not be appropriate for EL students in their first few years of English language instruction. However, there are ways to assess verbal reasoning that are language-reduced and ways to interpret the scores of EL students taking English-based verbal reasoning tests that give us this important insight into their verbal reasoning abilities.

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