Roughly 20 percent of U.S. residents, which is approximately 67.3 million people (equal to the population of France), speak a language other than English at home, according to the Center for Immigration Studies. When it comes to taking tests not in their first language, these groups can be at a notable disadvantage – especially for tests that influence a test-takers’ future.
Language is a significant barrier to fair and inclusive testing, particularly if language fluency is not relevant to the skill being measured by the test. This is why designing fair and inclusive tests for non-native speakers is a key component of equitable testing.
Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows that migrants, on average, get significantly lower literacy and numeracy test scores than native speakers. About half of it relates to the language of the test, meaning that if the migrants were tested in their own language, about half the difference would disappear.
As globalization and migration increase, it’s become critical to make tests fair for those whose native language is different from that of the test language. Passing a test is often a gateway to life chances, so all takers should be given the chance to demonstrate their capabilities.
Use simple wording for questions and instructions
One of the most straightforward ways to solve language barriers and increase test accessibility is by using simple wording throughout the test. For example, use “with” instead of “in conjunction with.” Some top practices include:
- Write simple, clear and concise questions. Similarly, use clear and unambiguous instructions on how to complete the test.
- Avoid colloquialisms, idioms, slang, irony and sarcasm, – i.e., words and phrases that only native speakers understand.
- Also avoid long sentences, complex grammar, double negatives and metaphors – phrases that complicate understanding.
Simple language allows for less room for misunderstanding for a reader, and it makes translating easier. These practices also help improve the test for all test-takers, regardless of their native language.
Provide translation capabilities
Translation is the strongest tactic for enabling fair and inclusive testing for non-native speakers. Moreover, it supports test-takers’ understanding so they can focus on the subject matter and reduce any potential anxiety.
One approach is to provide the test in more than one language. However, that comes with more cost – both financially and time-related – to create, translate and maintain a test in more than one language.
Another approach is to offer real-time translation within online tests, such as tools that allow test-takers to highlight any text they want to see in their chosen language and get an instantaneous translation during the assessment.
Regardless of what approach is chosen, translation technology should do the following things in order to be considered truly accessible:
- Support test-taker’s choice of language, including instructions. This one is straightforward – provide a multitude of language choices. This includes not only for the test questions and answers but also for the instructions.
- Support authoring of questions in any language and character set. If you build your test around the English language, there’s no room for certain characters and symbols used in other languages, such as accents in Spanish or characters in Chinese. Numbers should be localized as well.
- Include right-to-left languages. Any translation you provide should conform to test-takers’ expectations, including for right-to-left languages, such as Arabic. Moreover, the layout, icons and graphics should mirror this orientation, so it’s a consistent experience for the test-taker.
Offer additional accommodations
When translating tests is not possible, other options should be provided to test-takers. A common tactic is to give more time to non-native speakers, so they have the bandwidth to digest their own translations with less pressure. Text-to-speech audio tools may help them understand words better when played aloud, and dictionaries can also be provided to takers to better comprehend words in the test.
Education is a human right
In conclusion, providing accommodations for non-native speakers is a critical piece of fair and inclusive testing. If left to the wayside, exclusion from fair assessments leads to fewer opportunities for individuals, as well as schools and businesses missing out on undiscovered talent.
Education is a human right. Everyone deserves a fair opportunity at educational and workplace life chances. Facilitating fair and inclusive tests in a language-rich world is one step towards bringing more inclusivity, equity and accessibility into the world of assessments.
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