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4 Keys to Developing Spanish Assessments

As we discussed in recent posts, the assessment market is in flux. But this is nothing new. The passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002 disrupted the market, and for some companies this turned out to be a boon, as spending on state-level assessments nearly tripled in the next 6 years. As you can see from this graph, state-level assessment spending has decreased since 2008, while classroom assessment spending has continued to grow.

Assessment Spending Graph 1

Source: based on Simba data reported by Education Week.

Just as the change in 2002 represented an opportunity for many companies, the shifts we see now may also have a silver lining. And for one area in particular, Spanish assessments, there may be continued growth, especially in the classroom market. Why? Regardless of other shifts that may occur, students with Spanish as the first language comprise by far the largest population among English Language Learners (ELL) in the United States, at 71%, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Not surprisingly, many states have programs to improve instruction for ELL and other multilingual students. See, for example, the New York State Education Department’s Blueprint for English Language Learner Success.

Is there room for improvement? In 2015, 38.8 million students in the United States who spoke a foreign language at home were fully proficient in English, up from 12.9 million in 1980. This huge improvement accompanied an overall increase in the Hispanic population. However, in 2015, 40% of the ELL population was considered to have Limited English Proficiency (LEP). These students need and deserve our attention.

What Is the Best Way to Help ELL Students?

In a recent blog, we explored the advantages of dual language programs that foster bilingualism. Bilingualism refers to children who grow up acquiring two languages or who acquire a second language at an early age. The advantage for children of immigrants is that they learn English while growing up, together with their home language, whereas their parents had to learn English in school or the workplace.

However, throughout most of the 20th century bilingualism was considered to interfere cognitively with intellectual development. Immersion programs were preferred because they rapidly moved students toward English-only instruction and assessment.

When investigating the bilingual phenomenon, scientists ascertained that the brains of children who grow up speaking two languages develop enhanced cognitive function. For example, researchers discovered that “the constant management of two competing languages enhances executive functions” (Bialystok, 2001). This research has helped fuel the recent surge in dual-language programs.

To put it another way, students lose something significant when they lose a language. In fact, research has found that bilinguals actually see the world differently. Furthermore, they report feeling like a different person when they switch to the other language.

Specific Advantages of Being Bilingual

“The brain of somebody who speaks two languages is much more flexible, it’s more used to complexity, and so looks for the best solutions and as a result ends up more agile.”

Patricia K. Kuhl, Director of the NSF Science of Learning Center, University of Washington

According to the Head Start program, which serves more than 300,000 Dual Language Learners (DLL) in the United States, there are significant advantages to bilingualism, including the following cognitive effects:

FourKeys Table1

Bilingual children benefit by developing more flexible approaches to tackling problems. Likewise, bilingualism enhances the ability to use information in new ways. Overall, speaking a second language improves problem-solving, multitasking, and decision-making.

However, instruction is only part of the solution. If students benefit from bilingual instruction, it follows that they will need bilingual assessment.

4 Keys to Developing Spanish Assessments

In our extensive experience developing and translating Spanish assessments, we have found that there are four keys to developing high-quality assessments that are reliable and valid.

“Test transadaptation involves both the translation and adaptation of items written originally in the source language and the replacement of items unsuitable for translation/adaptation with items written in the target language.”

Source: Translating and Adapting a Test, yet another Source of Variance; the Standard Error of Translation.

Case Study from a Spanish Assessment Project

I have found that instructional programs and testing guidelines are usually written to conform to Anglo-Saxon rules, which may not always work well in other languages. Especially in language arts, there are stylistic differences that are routinely disregarded in favor of English grammar, punctuation, and even phonics rules. Hence, the rendition in the target language may not be completely native, so to speak.

Surprisingly enough, even math assessments need transadaptation. I often encounter exercises developed for English that do not work well in Spanish because the underlying instruction is specific to English. Case in point: the rules to write numbers in word form in English do not apply in Spanish, as happens with the numbers thirteen through nineteen shown in the table below.

It works very well in English to explain that placing the name of the number before the “teen” root forms the words for these numbers. For instance, fourteen is created by joining “four” and the “-teen” root, which means “ten more than.” However, this explanation does not work in Spanish. Although “-teen” and “-ce” are inflected forms of the root of ten (the former a cognate of the German “-zehn” and the latter a cognate of the Latin “-decim”), the relationship is not directly apparent and would require a great deal of explanation in Spanish that would distract from the math exercise. In this case, the solution was to transadapt seven exercises to account for the differences in the roots.


“Parallel instructional programs combined with assessments that have been applied directly from English to Spanish without addressing validity and reliability issues may impede the literacy development of Spanish-speaking students, and negatively influence student outcomes on literacy assessments.”

Source: Escamilla, 1999


In 2012, a Eurobarometer survey found that around 54% of Europeans are bilingual, and other studies estimate that over half of the world’s population is bilingual. One goal of our education system is to be more competitive in a global economy. Immersion programs would take us away from this goal, while programs that nurture bilingualism are headed in the right direction. These programs will see a sustained need for assessments in Spanish, mostly at the classroom level. Despite earlier thinking, developing Spanish assessments will lead to better performance on English assessments!

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