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Tracy Noble, Ann Rosebery, Rachel Kachchaf, and Catherine Suarez
—(2015) Cambridge, MA: TERC. 



  • To make sure that MCAS science tests are testing students' knowledge and skills in science and not acting as additional tests of English proficiency.
  • To make science testing more fair and equitable, so that English Language Learners (ELLs) and their teachers, schools, and districts are not unfairly penalized as a result of test score gaps between ELLs and non-ELLs.

Three Studies

We conducted three studies to investigate how the language of the 5th grade Science and Technology/Engineering MCAS might interfere with ELLs' abilities to demonstrate what they know about science when answering multiple-choice items:

  1. Correlation Study: Investigated which of the linguistic features identified in previous research were highly correlated with ELL performance on 5th grade multiple-choice MCAS science items.
  2. Interview Study: Interviewed Grade 5 ELLs about the test items with and without the linguistic features identified in the correlation study.
  3. Test Administration Study: Modified released MCAS test items to remove problematic linguistic features and add helpful features.

Administered original and linguistically modified test items to over 2000 Grade 5 students (ELLs and non- ELLs) in four MA districts.

Study Findings

Findings from these studies confirmed that the visual and linguistic content in MCAS science test items had an impact on ELLs' performance on these science test items. (A summary of the results can be found on pages 15-17.)

Specifically, the studies:

  1. Identified 2 features of 5th grade multiple-choice MCAS science test items that are helpful for ELLs.
  2. Identified 4 linguistic features of 5th grade multiple-choice MCAS science test items that cause difficulty for ELLs.

These features, along with released items that illustrate them, appear on pages 4-8. (Additional items containing these features appear on pages 13-14.) We created two tip sheets to help teachers of ELLs translate our findings into practice. One tip sheet focuses on ways to prepare your students to take standardized tests (see page 9). The other focuses on best practices for developing your own assessments for use with ELLs (see page 11).

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