Initial Assessment Strategy 2

2.  How are ELLs identified and assessed throughout the United States? The U.S. Government mandates that ELLs must be identified and that students who have been identified as ELLs must be offered a program designed to help them succeed in school. It should be noted that parents and guardians, however, may choose not to have their children receive these services.

The Federal Government does not mandate a specific process that must be used to identify ELLs. There is a great deal of variation in processes used to identify ELLs (Burnett, 1993). The U.S. Government only mandates that a fair and unbiased process be used to determine if students are language minority learners. Listed below are broad guidelines for identifying and assessing potential language minority students. It may be necessary to modify these steps based on local conditions, including and not limited to demographics.

Initial Identification of Language Minority Students:

  1. As part of the school enrollment process for a new student, the school provides the parent/guardian with a home language survey in the parent/guardian's primary language. Interpreters who speak the parents/guardian's primary language should be available to assist with the registration process.
  2. School staff members who have received the appropriate home language survey training administer the surveys; they then evaluate the surveys to decide whether the student needs to be assessed to determine his or her level of English language proficiency. Staff members either identify the student as non-language minority or refer him or her for language proficiency assessment and academic assessment. If the student is not identified as language minority,the student's enrollment process continues without language proficiency assessment.
  3. The home language survey form is filed in the student's cumulative folder. Forms should be filed for every student enrolled, not just for those who are ELLs.
  4. Students are referred to appropriate school personnel for language proficiency testing and an assessment of their academic skills. For more information, see the Sample Procedures for ELL Identification and Assessment.
  5. Once students have been assessed and identified as ELLs, an appropriate program must be designed and offered to the student. Parents and guardians have the option not to allow their students to have ELL services.

  2a. Why are home language surveys used? This survey tells educators whether or not the child is exposed to languages other than English in the home environment. Some surveys only ask if the parents/guardians speak English to their child. However, this is culturally biased, since in many cultures the main caretakers for young children are grandparents, and they may provide more linguistic input than the child's parents. A good home language survey not only determines what language the child speaks with his or her parents, but also queries what other language(s) the child may be hearing.

The home language survey needs to be administered in the parent or guardian's primary language. In some cases it will also be necessary to provide the information orally, since parents or guardians may not have the literacy skills to complete a written version of the form in their primary language. In other words, the parents may come from a culture where oral traditions are emphasized over traditions of print literacy.

There are a number of cultural considerations that should be taken into account when creating a home language survey. It is important to ask when a child was born as well as the child's age; in some Asian cultures, age is calculated differently than it is in the U.S.

Examples of Home Language Surveys

  2b. What should be considered when selecting a suitable language proficiency test? The language proficiency assessment of English language learners is a complicated process and requires practitioners to address a variety of factors (Hargett, 1998). There are a number of issues that should be taken into account when selecting a language proficiency instrument for use in a specific school, school district or state. Listed below are questions that may be considered in the selection process.

  • Test Instrument Theoretical Basis

    Does the test instrument have a strong theoretical basis?

    Is there evidence that the test has a strong degree of validity and reliability?

    Are the technical documents describing and supporting the test easy to understand and theoretically sound?

    Are the theoretical underpinnings of the test consistent with the educational philosophy of the local/state education agency? Has the test been approved by the local/state education agency?

  • Cultural and Linguistic Suitability

    Has the test been normed with members of the same cultural and linguistic groups as those whom the instrument will assess?

    Are the test items comprehensible to students who represent a variety of cultures? (Although it is impossible to have a culture-free test, the test should assess the student's ability to understand English, not their cultural knowledge.)

    Are there members of different ethnic/racial groups favorably depicted in the test pictures?

    Does the test take into account students who are non-English speakers? For example, is there a mechanism for stopping the test before it is completed for those students who have no, or very limited, English skills?.

  • Practical Considerations

    Is the test easy to administer? Is it feasible to provide school staff members with the training they need to administer the test properly?

    Is the test age appropriate for the students being assessed?

    Are there multiple test forms? (Multiple forms make it possible to administer pre- and post-testing.)

    Is the length of time it takes to administer the test reasonable or excessive?

    Is the test easy to score? Does it take a lot of time to score the test or can it be scored quickly?

    Is the cost of the test reasonable or excessive?

  • Diagnostic and Placement Information

    Does the test provide adequate and appropriate information for program placement?

    Does the test provide useful diagnostic information for the classroom teacher, as well as other educational personnel?

    Does the test include subtests? For example, is there are a reading test, a writing test, a listening test, and a speaking test?

There are many different language proficiency tests available. It is important to choose a language proficiency instrument that meets the needs of the state, the specific school district, and the individual school.

Examples of Language Proficiency Tests

  2c. Who should administer the language proficiency tests? The test examiner must be thoroughly familiar with the test. It is not adequate for the test examiner to be given the test a couple of minutes before the test is administered. The test examiner should also receive the type and amount of training recommended by the publisher of the test.

The test examiner should have the cross-cultural skills necessary to work with students from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. In many cases, the language proficiency test examiner is the first representative of the school community to interact with the student. This first encounter can have a positive or negative influence on the student's school experience. There are many resources available to help educators become more culturally responsive to the needs of ELLs.

The test examiner may need to receive comprehensive cross-cultural training to work effectively with students who are potential ELLs. The training should help test examiners learn how to respect cultural differences and to take these differences into account when working with students from different cultural backgrounds. Students from different cultural backgrounds often have different cultural expectations when it comes to behavior between children and adults. For example, some children do not look adults in the eye because this is considered disrespectful in their culture. In this regard, test examiners should not expect all students to look them in the eye. Test examiners should also be careful about physical contact with students. In some cultures it is considered rude to pat a child on the head. Test examiners should also be aware that in some cultures it is considered inappropriate to write in red ink the name of a person who is still living. Some ELLs may be unfamiliar with testing procedures and practices such as this and may need to have them demonstrated and/or explained in their primary language.


Burnett , G. (1993, April). The assessment and placement of language minority students. 

Hargett, G. R. (1998). Assessment in ESL and bilingual education. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Education Laboratory's Comprehensive Center.