ACCESS for ELLs® Overview: Essential Background

ACCESS for ELLs® stands for Assessing Comprehension and Communication in English State-to-State for English Language Learners. It is a large-scale test that first and foremost addresses the English language development standards that form the core of the WIDA Consortium's approach to instructing and testing English language learners. These standards incorporate a set of model performance indicators (PIs) that describe the expectations educators have of ELL students at four different grade level clusters and in five different content areas.

The grade level clusters include PreK-K, 1-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12. There are five content areas of the standards. The first is called social and instructional language (SI), which incorporates proficiencies needed to deal with the general language of the classroom and the school. The others are English language arts (LA), math (MA), science (SC), and social studies (SS).

For each grade level, then, the standards specify one or more performance indicators for each content area within each of the four language domains: Listening, Speaking, Reading, and Writing.

The WIDA framework recognizes the continuum of language development within the four domains with six English language proficiency levels.

Level 1 Level 2 Level 3 Level 4 Level 5 Level 6
Entering Beginning Developing Expanding Bridging Reaching

These levels describe the spectrum of a learner's progression from knowing little to no English to acquiring the English skills necessary to be successful in an English-only mainstream classroom without extra support. This final, exit stage for ELL status is designated Level 6 (formerly ELL). Within each combination of grade level, content area, and language domain, there is a PI at each of the five points on the proficiency ladder, and the sequence of these five PIs together describe a logical progression and accumulation of skills on the path to full proficiency.

Drawn from the PIs, the ACCESS for ELLs® incorporates all five standards and English language proficiency levels in sections that correspond to the four domains. The target administration times for each section of the test for grades 1-12 are:

  1. Listening: 20-25 minutes, machine scored
  2. Reading: 35-40 minutes, machine scored
  3. Writing: Up to 1 hour, rater scored
  4. Speaking: Up to 15 minutes, administrator scored

The Kindergarten test is individually-administered and takes an average of 40 minutes per student. Kindergarten students with very high English language proficiency may take around 55 minutes to complete the test while students with low levels of English language proficiency may take only a few minutes.

The goal of the ACCESS for ELLs® test is to allow students to demonstrate their level of proficiency through the PIs. However, there are far too many PIs altogether to present to any single test taker. A test with questions assessing each and every PI would be far too long to fit in any reasonable testing session. For any particular child, some of the questions on a comprehensive test might be dismissively easy, making it boring, while others would be exactingly hard, making it frustrating. It is important to avoid both possibilities to achieve a reliable test.