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Design and Use of Illustrations in Test Items as a Form of Accommodation for English Language Learners in Science and Mathematics Assessment

This project investigates how vignette illustrations minimize the impact of limited English proficiency on student performance in science tests. Different analyses will determine whether and how ELL and non-ELL students differ significantly on the ways they use vignettes to make sense of items; whether the use of vignettes reduces test-score differences due to language factors between ELL and non-ELL students; and whether the level of distance of the items moderates the effectiveness of vignette-illustrated items.

Lead Organization(s): 
Award Number: 
0822362
Funding Period: 
Mon, 09/01/2008 - Sun, 08/12/2012
Full Description: 

This exploratory project within the Contextual Strand (Challenge a) addresses validity in the assessment of science and mathematics for English language learners (ELLs), and the urgent need for effective testing accommodations for ELLs. Motivation for this investigation originated from a previous, NSF-funded project on the testing of ELLs. We observed that items which were accompanied by illustrations tended to be responded correctly by a higher percentage of students than items without illustrations. We will investigate the factors that are relevant to designing and using a new form of accommodation in the assessment of science and mathematics for ELLs—vignette illustrations.

This three-year project will be guided by four research questions: What principles underlie the effective design of science and mathematics test items with illustrations in ways that minimize limited English proficiency as a factor that prevents ELLs from understanding the items? Is the presence of an illustration a moderator in students’ understanding test items? If so, Is the effect due to the simple presence of a graphical component or due to characteristics of the illustrations that are created based on principled design? Does the presence of an illustration have a different effect on the performance of ELLs and the performance of non-ELL students?

We expect to be able to: 1) identify the role of illustrations in the cognitive activities elicited by vignette-illustrated items; 2) determine whether any differences between performance on vignette-illustrated items and other kinds of items are due to the this form of accommodation’s capacity to address language as a construct-irrelevant factor; 3) identify the set of practical and methodological issues that are critical to properly developing and using vignette-illustrated items; and 4) propose a set of documents and procedures for the systematic and cost-effective design and development of vignette-illustrated items. 

We will test ELL and non-ELL students with items of three types (vignette-illustrated items whose illustrations are designed systematically, vignette-illustrated items whose illustrations are created arbitrarily, and items without illustrations) at two levels of distance to the enacted curriculum (close and distal). Diverse forms of analysis will allow us to determine whether and how ELL and non-ELL students differ on the ways in which they use vignettes to make sense of items, whether the use of vignettes reduces test score differences due to language factors between ELL and non-ELL students, and whether the level of distance of the items moderates the effectiveness of vignette-illustrated items.

Intellectual merit. This project will provide information that will help to advance our understanding in two assessment arenas: effective accommodations for ELLs, and item development practices. While illustrations are frequently used in test items, there is not guidance in the assessment development literature on how to approach illustrations. Furthermore, the value of illustrations as a resource for ensuring that ELL students understand what a given item is about and what the item asks them to do has not been systematically investigated. Semiotics, cognitive psychology, and linguistics and socio-cultural theory are brought together to develop systematic procedures for developing illustrations as visual supports in tests. Understanding the role that images play in test taking is relevant to devising more effective ways of testing students. While this project aims to improve testing accommodations practices for ELLs, knowledge gained from it will inform test development practices relevant to all student populations.

Broader impact. We expect outcomes of this project to contribute to enhanced practice in both classroom and large-scale assessment. The push for including ELLs in large-scale testing programs with accountability purposes is not corresponded by effective testing accommodation practices. Many testing accommodations used by national and state assessment programs are not defensible, are not effective, or are improperly implemented. Vignette illustrations have the potential to become a low-cost, easy-to-implement form of testing accommodation for ELLs. Results form this investigation will allow us to identify a set of principles for the proper design and use of vignette illustrations as a form of testing accommodation for ELLs. The project is important not only because it explores the potential of an innovative form of accommodation but because it uses a systematic procedure for designing that form of accommodation.

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