In Compliance

It’s December and high school students across Ohio are taking “end-of-course exams.” These exams are one of the ways students can earn the “graduation points” they need to graduate with a high school diploma.[1] Standardized testing is a major part of the American education system. In a prior blog, our Director of Localization Solutions, Mohamed Hassan, related the story of moving his family from Cairo, Egypt to Ohio and his sons’ struggles learning and testing in English. For standardized tests, is vital to evaluate a students’ knowledge of the subject matter, not their ability to read, write, and comprehend in English. That is where “CALP” comes in.   

The Importance of CALP

The concept of “Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency” (or “CALP”) is an important one. There is a major difference between being able to order food in a restaurant, gossip and play games with your friends, or ask for directions to your next class, and being able to discuss science, math, history, social studies, literature, health, etc. The language of academics, and really of each individual academic subject, includes its own unique terminology. It takes CALP to understand this language.

Put Yourself in Their Shoes

Western Illinois University has an amazing thought experiment available on its website to help those of us fluent in English feel what it’s like to be an ELL student.[2] In it, we’re asked to solve a relatively simple math “story problem” (at the 3rd-grade level). Math is universal, right? So, this should be no problem!

The Experiment

We are first provided with a limited glossary of word equivalents between Japanese and English.  The question and the responses use the words in the glossary and standard number characters, but the math terms are not translated as that’s seen as providing an “unfair advantage.” With only the glossary available, we’re challenged to read the story and answer the questions.

Go ahead and click below to try it out yourself. Afterward, come back for a discussion on how schools can help ELL students (and trust me … you’re going to want to help after going through this experiment!)

Experiment: How Would You Do as an ELL Student?

Epic Failure

I’m no slouch when it comes to academics (Mensa, law school valedictorian…). Let me assure you, I tried. I tried hard to understand the story and answer the questions.

After three minutes of not being able to figure out the very first character/word, I switched tactics and tried to identify those words that I could find in the glossary. I got about every second or third word in the opening paragraph and the first two questions. That took more than 20 minutes. At that point, I gave up and looked at the English version. The English version has a name, Darin, that’s not in the glossary. It’s was that first word of the story problem that I couldn’t figure out. There are several other symbols that just don’t appear in the glossary.

On the English version, it took me five minutes to read and answer all four questions correctly.  Even if the glossary was complete, ELL students with as much (or as little) knowledge of English as I have of Japanese would take an hour to complete that one story problem. Plus, they would experience the same stress, anxiety, and frustration I did from having to refer back to the glossary over and over again and not being able to figure out words in a foreign alphabet. I gave up after 20 minutes, but students would have to slog through it and finish to get a good score.

Lessons Learned

In the end, the University recounts three very important lessons learned from this experiment:

  1. Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency is necessary for achievement in content areas.
  2. Many ELLs have knowledge that they cannot express due to lack of CALP.  This, in turn, can lead to excess stress and self-esteem issues.  (Just because you struggled with Japanese doesn’t mean you don’t have the ability to do third-grade math, does it?)
  3. Math is not “universal.”

How Can Schools Help?

Now that we all have a better understanding of the need, let’s look at some ways to help. The state of Ohio suggests several options that are generally representative of the types of help ELL students might need during standardized testing.[3]

  • Translated tests. Translated tests may be the best way to assist ELL students. A translated test evaluates knowledge of the subject matter, not a student’s CALP. Ohio also offers “Stacked Spanish/English bilingual” tests, where the test items are presented in both Spanish and English.
  • Oral interpreters during the test. Ohio and many other states require students to write their answers in English. Even a translated test can’t help a student who cannot write English. Further, if a translated test isn’t available, the student needs an interpreter to interpret the test questions, instructions, and answer options. An interpreter will “site translate” the test and assist the student to write answers in English.
  • Dual Monitors + Interpreter. Dual monitors to allow an interpreter to read on one monitor while the student tests on another. This avoids the interpreter reading over the student’s shoulder.
  • More Time. Extended time to allow students more time to work through the test. (I think the thought experiment really demonstrates the need for more time … a lot more time!)
  • Oral Questions. A human to read test questions and answer options in English, or text-to-speech options, can help students who listen and speak English more fluently than they read and write.
  • Scribe. Someone to write down an ELL student’s answers for him/her can also help students who listen and speak English more fluently than they read and write. (Speech-to-text technology might also be helpful here … so long as those grading the test understand that speech-to-text isn’t perfect and could cause some errors.)
  • Special Dictionary. Use of a word-to-word dictionary that shows only the English and native language word equivalents (i.e., not definitions, examples, pictures, etc.).[4]  (Though, after the experiment, I would say this, alone, is not enough, except for students who have some knowledge of English.)

Your Resource

Vocalink Global proudly supports school districts at test time and beyond. From translated tests to on-site and video interpreters, we help schools empower English Language Learner students to demonstrate their subject matter knowledge and ability, regardless of their Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency.  Want to learn more? Connect with us today!




[3] Of course, this help is not available for the English language arts tests. These tests measure English language skill, so having an interpreter or translated materials wouldn’t make much sense.

[4] See Ohio’s Test Administration Manual, available here:

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