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8 Reasons Not to Take Student WIDA ACCESS Scores Too Seriously

Madeleine Clays is a public school teacher with twelve years' experience teaching English language learners K–12.

Many factors impact how English language learners perform on the WIDA ACCESS

Many factors impact how English language learners perform on the WIDA ACCESS


Every year in school districts all across the U.S., WIDA ACCESS scores are used to guide important student placement decisions which include how much language support English learners will receive and which classes they will be in.

But are WIDA ACCESS scores valid measures of students' English proficiency levels and of their yearly progress in the four language domains? In this article, I will explain why these scores shouldn't be taken too seriously.

What Is the WIDA ACCESS?

WIDA stands for World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment. Currently, 35 U.S. states, along with the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Northern Mariana Islands, participate in what is known as the WIDA Consortium. This is an association of state departments of education that, collectively, designs and implements English language proficiency standards and assessments for English language learners in grades K-12.

ACCESS stands for Assessing Comprehension and Communication in English State-to-State. ACCESS is the name of the English language proficiency assessment designed by WIDA and given yearly to English language learners in public schools that are members of the WIDA Consortium.

This assessment is composed of four tests, each intended to measure English learners' proficiency in one of the four language domains: Speaking, Listening, Reading, and Writing. The assessment is also used to monitor the progress of English learners' language acquisition from one year to the next.

8 Reasons to Distrust Student WIDA ACCESS Scores

  1. Students are often tested by strangers.
  2. WIDA ACCESS is often administered in an unfamiliar environment.
  3. There are often many distractions during testing.
  4. The assessment is given halfway through the school year.
  5. Testing begins right after a two-week break.
  6. Many English learners have limited experience with computers.
  7. Other school events compete with students' attention.
  8. Many students don't test well.
English learners are often tested by strangers.

English learners are often tested by strangers.

1. Students are Often Tested By Adults They Don't Know

Many school districts employ designated, trained staff to travel to schools to administer the WIDA ACCESS to English learners. The rationale for this is that it allows English language teachers to continue with their daily instruction without interruption. Sometimes the adults who administer the assessment are staff from within the school building, but they aren't the test takers' English language teacher or a teacher they have for any of their other classes.

The downside of utilizing personnel that students aren't familiar with is that students may feel intimidated, nervous, or otherwise uncomfortable testing with somebody they don't know, and this can impact their scores. Students generally perform better with adults they're familiar with.

I have seen students test in locations ranging from empty cafeterias to storage rooms.

I have seen students test in locations ranging from empty cafeterias to storage rooms.

2. The Testing Environment is Often Unfamiliar to Students

Due to a shortage of space as well as the technology required to take this assessment, students usually take some or all of the WIDA ACCESS in places other than their classroom. They may take some of the tests in a computer lab, where many students can be tested together. Because most students have visited the computer lab for some of their other classes, this environment may not be as foreign to most of them.

However, schools with higher populations of English learners will often scramble to find any possible empty location to test students, without regard as to whether or not students may feel at ease there. Often, the priority is to simply get them tested as quickly as possible in order to comply with state and federal guidelines within the allotted window of time for this assessment.

Students may test in an empty classroom they've never been in before, in an open area such as a cafeteria or gym, or in a storage room. Yes, I have been in schools where students were tested in storage rooms because the schools claimed they did not have any other available space.

Like being assessed by a stranger, testing in a new environment may cause students to feel uneasy so they're unlikely to perform to their best ability.

One year, my students had a fire drill during one of their WIDA ACCESS tests.

One year, my students had a fire drill during one of their WIDA ACCESS tests.

3. Loud Noises and Other Distractions Often Occur During Testing

It's disappointing that in many schools, WIDA ACCESS is not given the respect other state tests are given. As a result, there are often loud noises and other interruptions during this assessment.

I actually taught in a school where we had a fire drill as my students were taking one of the ACCESS tests. In another school, a staff member entered the computer lab to use the printer while students were testing and slammed the door on his way out. Unsurprisingly, the administration refused to consider either of these incidents as testing irregularities. This means students' scores were considered valid.

I could provide many, many more examples of disruptions that have occurred while my English language learners were taking the ACCESS and which administration determined were inconsequential.

When other state assessments take place, many schools practically go into lockdown mode. Students are silenced in the halls between classes until testing is over. In fact, some schools even recruit parents or other volunteers to hold “Silence Please” signs throughout the school hallways on test days.

However, when ACCESS takes place, there are no such enforcements and non-testing students are generally unsupervised in the halls. It's not unusual for students to hear shouting, doors slamming, and other disruptions while they take the WIDA ACCESS. While some kids may be unphased by such incidents while testing, many others are greatly impacted by these interruptions, which is reflected in their scores.

Unlike other state assessments, the WIDA ACCESS is administered halfway through the school year.

Unlike other state assessments, the WIDA ACCESS is administered halfway through the school year.

4. Students Take the WIDA ACCESS Midyear

Unlike other state assessments which are administered at the end of each school year, ACCESS is given midyear. The testing window is typically early January through late March. Most schools will begin testing as early as January to allow a cushion of time for sudden schedule changes due to weather such as snow days, delayed openings, or early dismissals. They must also take into account that students may be absent due to sickness or other causes. For these reasons and particularly if they have a high number of English language learners, schools must allow ample time to test each student in the four language domains of ACCESS.

Testing students midyear means that ACCESS doesn’t measure how much progress English language learners have made in that academic year, but rather their progress from halfway through one school year to halfway through the next one. This is concerning because English learners often make great academic gains between January and June (when most school years end), but the scores used in their placement decisions are from midyear.

It's also very difficult to determine English language teacher and program effectiveness when ACCESS scores are based on two separate academic years. More than likely, English learners had a different teacher at each grade level and each teacher used different instructional methods and strategies. In addition, students who move over the summer and switch schools or districts could end up having two very different academic experiences between their yearly ACCESS tests.

Most students spend their winter break engaged in nonacademic activities.

Most students spend their winter break engaged in nonacademic activities.

5. Students Test After a 2-Week Break

I have always found it odd that ACCESS is given right after students return from a two-week winter break, during which time most of them have been disengaged from all things academic. Some of my students travel to their home country to visit family during their Christmas vacation, and they don't practice their English skills there. In addition, they often stay in their home country longer than the allotted two weeks, so they miss additional days of school. When they do return to the U.S., they're immediately given the WIDA ACCESS which may include make-up sessions for the tests they missed while they were away.

Even if our students don't travel overseas during their winter break, many of them live in homes where English is not spoken, so their exposure to English and ability to practice their English skills are limited during this time. Most of them spend their vacation playing video games and hanging out with family and friends.

Taking the ACCESS tests immediately after being out of school for several weeks doesn't allow students time to engage in review activities to better prepare them to do well on the assessment. Consequently, their scores end up being lower than they could be.

Many students have had limited experience with computers before they take the WIDA ACCESS.

Many students have had limited experience with computers before they take the WIDA ACCESS.

6. Many Students Have Had Limited Exposure to Technology

While teachers will generally acclimate their students to computers in the classroom and utilize the WIDA ACCESS Practice Tests to prepare them to navigate through the assessment, many English learners simply need more time to become comfortable using technology before they take the ACCESS test.

Many of them have had limited experience with computers, particularly if they moved from countries where electronic devices were scarce or unavailable in their schools. Students most impacted are those who have recently arrived in the U.S. shortly before ACCESS is administered each year.

Because many students can’t successfully navigate through the online tests, they're unable to show their true English skills. Sometimes they don’t ask for help because they're embarrassed. Proctors administering the test may not notice that some students need help understanding basic directions. (Test administrators are allowed to assist students with technology-related issues.)

When students are pulled from class for testing, they often miss out on fun class activities or school events.

When students are pulled from class for testing, they often miss out on fun class activities or school events.

7. Other School Events Compete With Students' Attention

Often, school programs or activities compete with students’ attention during the WIDA ACCESS. As a result, they end up performing below par. For example, a special speaker may visit their class that day during their test time. If students don't want to miss that, they may rush through their assessment so they can return to class quickly.

Unfortunately, test schedulers don't always consider students' lunch times when they pull them from their classrooms for testing. Students may look at the clock during testing and realize they're missing their lunch or worry that they won't have time to eat. This, too, may prompt them to rush through the assessment, especially if they look forward to socializing with their non-testing peers in the cafeteria.

Some classroom teachers are frustrated that their English language students miss instruction due to ACCESS testing. They may express this frustration in front of their students which causes them to feel confused and uneasy. I have had English learners ask me if they are in trouble with their classroom teachers for having to take the ACCESS!

Some students become overly anxious and don't test well.

Some students become overly anxious and don't test well.

8. Some Students Don't Test Well

We know that many kids simply don’t test well, regardless of where they are tested or who tests them. They may feel very nervous, sometimes to the point of shutting down completely. Some become physically ill because they're so anxious. Many of them are very self-conscious during the speaking test because they have to speak aloud while surrounded by their peers. Even though all students wear headphones for the speaking test, you would be surprised at how many of them feel embarrassed to speak out loud—especially those who are more introverted or shy.

In addition, many English learners are dealing with trauma from their transition from their home country to the U.S. Trauma affects students on all levels—including emotionally and academically. These students have more difficulty concentrating and processing the information on the ACCESS tests. As a result, their scores are unlikely to be accurate reflections of their English skills.

A Flawed Standard

The WIDA ACCESS claims to test students' levels of English proficiency and their progress in the four language domains from year to year. Yet the concerns expressed in this article speak for themselves.

District English language departments should engage in open dialogue with school administrators and English language teachers to address these issues and to ensure that WIDA ACCESS testing conditions are adequate in order to equip students for a successful testing experience.

Teachers and parents need to voice their concerns and advocate for students in order to help them perform to the best of their ability on this assessment so that their scores more accurately reflect their English skills in the four language domains.

© 2020 Madeleine Clays