SAT Testing Accommodations for ELL Students

Posted on March 14, 2010
by FeliciaOctocog

Despite much criticism over the years, the SAT 1 is still a requirement for entrance into most 4-year colleges. This test, touted as a Reasoning Test, is a 4-hour test broken into several 20 to 25-minute sections.  In each section, students race against the clock to answer all the questions.  Even for native English speakers, the time constraints on this test are a challenge.  If you have a documented learning disability you can get extended time and other accommodations (such as a reader or scribe). So why aren’t English Language Learners (ELL) also allowed the same accommodations on the SAT entrance exams?

I have had the pleasure of working with so many bright students who have come to the US as teens. Reading English simply takes longer for these students and therefore the time restrictions are a serious barrier to doing well on SAT’s.  Why impose the same time restrictions on them? The SAT 1 is a Reasoning Test – can students read a passage or word problem, comprehend, digest and then answer the questions. The speed component to the test helps weed out the Ivy-bound from the rest but clearly one’s ability to do well in a college test or assignment is not determined by how fast you can complete it.  I have never seen a college assignment or even a test that has the same outrageously intense time restrictions as does the SAT 1. Being able to read an extremely long, complex and dry reading passage and answer 10 questions in 20 minutes or to write a 5 paragraph essay in 25 minutes does not tell you whether a student can handle college work or not. If that same student is given 50% more time (5 extra minutes!) or even double the time and that same student can improve his or her grade significantly, don’t you think that student will be able to succeed in college.

Clearly this is on other people’s minds, even the College Board. In 2008 College Board released a report on Test Accommodations for ELL students where they evaluated testing policies across the 46 states that have mandatory state testing.  The accommodation allowed were all over the place and there is little empirical evidence to document which accommodations are most useful in increasing scores.   The accommodations included extended time, use of bilingual dictionaries (without definitions), oral instructions, or directions (or entire test) provided in native language. (There is a large list of other accommodations found in each state).  The report also pointed out the lack of standardization in assessing the need for accommodations. For students with learning disabilities, use of IEP’s are widely used and documented.  There is no equivalent assessment system for ELL students. The report ends by recommending that “research on the use of linguistic modification, the effects of which could be experimentally evaluated during the pretesting of items, would be especially informative and may ultimately lead, in the long term, to the most effective testing accommodation available for ELLs.”1

In Massachusetts it should be noted that all Limited English Proficient students (LEP) who have been in this country before March of any given year must participate in the spring (May) MCAS tests although the scores for first year students are not counted in the district’s overall score reports.  In addition it should be noted that if the LEP student has been in this country less than 3 years he/she may elect to use a Spanish/English version of the test for the mathematics exam. In addition, any current or former LEP students may also elect to use a bilingual dictionary for the mathematics section.2

Given the increase in the LEP population in many states, including Massachusetts, College Board should come up with some fair guidelines for assessing LEP status and allowing accommodations similar to the ones the states provide for their tests.

I do not believe these issues are insurmountable.  Assessments based on MEPA results, MCAS and in-school accommodations should be sufficient to judge a student’s need for accommodations.


1 College, Board, No. 2008-6, Testing Accommodations for English Language Learners, A Review of State and District Policies, by John W. Young and Teresa C. King

2 Massachusetts Department of Secondary and Elementary Education, Spring 2010,

“Requirements for the Participation of Students with Limited English Proficiency in