Assessing English language proficiency
This report was originally published 17 September 2013.
A trial of the English as an Additional Language or Dialect (EAL/D) Learning Progression instrument in NSW schools has demonstrated strong reliability and validity for identifying students' English language proficiency. The instrument is able to better identify and discriminate EAL/D needs for resource allocation at the school level, across NSW and potentially Australia-wide. Teachers were able to make more discriminating judgements about each student than is possible with the current NSW ESL phase tool, and they found the new instrument easy to use.
The new school funding model under the National Plan for School Improvement includes a loading for students with limited English language proficiency. However, there is currently no nationally consistent measure of English language proficiency available as the basis for the distribution of this funding.
The NSW Department of Education and Communites (DEC) is now preparing a cost-benefit analysis for a national trial of the EAL/D instrument for the Standing Council on School Education and Early Childhood (SCSEEC).
A more reliable and valid instrument for identifying English language proficiency for resource allocation.
What is the EAL/D Learning Progression?
The Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) developed the English as an Additional Language or Dialect (EAL/D) Learning Progression to help teachers who are implementing the Australian curriculum. It was developed primarily for teachers who are not EAL/D specialists and who need to identify the English language levels of EAL/D students in their classrooms to address their specific learning requirements.
The EAL/D Learning Progression describes the development of English language typical of students learning English as an additional language or dialect. It includes broad descriptions of the characteristics of learner groups at each of four phases of learning (beginning, emerging, developing and consolidating) in each of four different language modes (listening, speaking, reading and writing). The phase descriptors for each mode are further differentiated by three broad stages of schooling: Years K-2, 3-6, 7-10.
NSW and national contexts
In 2012 in NSW government schools, approximately 230,000 students were from language backgrounds other than English (LBOTE). These students made up around 30 per cent of total enrolments. More than 136,000 students (18 per cent) were learning English as an additional language or dialect.
Many EAL/D students commence schooling in Australia with little or no proficiency in English, requiring targeted resources to overcome that disadvantage. In NSW, students’ English proficiency is assessed with the three phase ESL tool. Data collected using this tool provides the basis for ESL support and funding to schools.
The NSW three phase tool classifies students in three levels, but lacks discrete descriptors that are age appropriate and specific to different aspects of proficiency. Teachers cannot identify different levels of a student’s listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills in English, even though many students have varying proficiency across these modes. While another assessment tool – the ESL scales – allows for more refined assessments of English language skills, it requires significant ESL expertise and time to complete.
The new school funding model under the National Plan for School Improvement includes a loading for students with limited English language proficiency. In the absence of a nationally consistent measure of English language proficiency the new funding model uses a proxy measure, 'Disadvantaged LBOTE (language background other than English)', to distribute the funding to individual jurisdictions and schools. However, prior NSW analysis indicated that the ‘Disadvantaged LBOTE’ measure was a poor approximation for limited English proficiency. The NSW analysis highlighted the need for a more accurate and consistent measure for the equitable distribution of funding for limited English proficiency across jurisdictions.
The EAL/D Learning Progression was recognised as a possible alternative measure. Prior to the NSW trial however, there had been no large-scale trials to collect evidence and test its validity. In particular, it is important to know whether teachers can use the EAL/D instrument to produce sufficiently consistent assessments.
As a result of the trial initiative, DEC has been commissioned by a national working group to prepare a cost-benefit analysis for a possible national trial of the EAL/D instrument for resource allocation. The national trial would test the suitability of the EAL/D instrument across all jurisdictions, with a greater number of teachers and students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds.