[Ken Kifer's Writing Pages]

ARTICLE: On Using The Nelson-Denny Test for ESL Students at X College

This essay explains why a reading test for American students won't work for non-American students and then shows the limitations of even a good test, such as the TOEFL.

On Using The Nelson-Denny Test for ESL Students at X College


NOTE: Since I criticized Dr. Ivy's position in this paper, it may seem that I had a poor regard for his teaching abilities, especially with ESL students. That is not true at all; Dr. Ivy was very effective as a teacher and with those students. I have substituted "X," "here," or "this school" for the name of the college where this happened throughout.

The issue being considered is as follows: The East-West Japanese students have taken several reading tests and have scored far below the American standard even after being allowed double time. Ellis Ivey, who has been teaching reading to them, feels that the reading class has been taught in the past to the ESL students with no standard. He suggests that we accept a score of 17.69 on the Nelson-Denny as a passing score since that is the average score earned by the ESL students this year at this school on the higher of their two Nelson-Denny tests (American students must earn 48.3).

Before giving my reply, I would like to explain my background. I am not trained as a reading teacher, but I did teach reading for one year in Kentucky and also for half a quarter to ESL students at the University of Alabama. Furthermore, I earned my second MA degree in TESL. My studies in English as a Second Language included a look at tests and testing. More broadly, we looked at theory and practice in the various areas of language learning and teaching, including reading.

I have several reasons for disliking the above proposal. First, the Nelson-Denny test has no reliability or validity for testing ESL students. Second, even if we substitute a test that does have reliability and validity, such as the TOEFL or the University of Michigan test, that test has limited usefulness for placement. Third, I do not think that any placement test should be used to determine in any class which students pass or fail; a placement test should be used for placement only, and promotion should be based on achievement or upon reaching a well-defined standard towards which a class is directed.

In regard to the Nelson-Denny's reliability for testing ESL students, I need to look no further than the scores presented by Dr. Ivey. Fifteen students took first Form F and later Form E of the Nelson-Denny test. With three of these students, the scores remained roughly the same, and with six of the students, the scores increased dramatically. If only these nine students had taken the test, we would believe that three students had not learned much while the other six had made great progress. However, the results from the other six students indicate the unreliability of such an assessment because these scores plunged about as much as the other scores had risen. If a student's score doubles within one quarter, I can accept such terrific improvement as possible, especially among ESL students. However, if such a score plunges dramatically, as did Mamie's, Tae's, and Akiko's, I have to either assume that they were intoxicated when they retook the test or that the test is meaningless. It is possible even with such a small set of scores to statistically test for reliability between the two forms, but there is no reason for doing so; the results are too obvious: our students did not fail the Nelson-Denny: the Nelson-Denny failed our students.

We can deal with the Nelson-Denny's validity in the same way, ignoring reliability this time, but looking at the average of the two tests on reasonably consistent scores. According to the two tests, Takashi and Tomoko are at the very bottom of the class while Yuriko is second only to Kotaro. On the other hand, if we look at the Assessment and Placement Test for Community Colleges, Kayo has the highest score of all. While someone who has never taught these students may accept such results, I can not. Takashi and Tomoko demonstrate better language skills and grades than Yuriko and Kayo.

I can give several good reasons why ESL students test unreliably. First, their reading speed is low. Second, their vocabulary is tiny compared to that of an American student; kindergarten students in the US understand far more words than these students can reasonable be expected to learn in a few years. Third, their vocabulary is non-standard; thus, they don't know language we take for granted. Fourth, they lose a lot in the translation. Fifth, they come from a different culture: even when they understand the material, they might misunderstand the question. In addition, according to what I have read about learning, a person learns best when the person is prepared to receive the information, but these students are having to tackle strange questions in a strange language about strange situations. An ESL student has many handicaps that an American student does not. To some extent, even his or her education is a handicap since it has been teaching the student how to cope with a different world.

The proposal has been made to accept 17.69 as a passing score for ESL students. I see absolutely no reason to accept such a figure. Since the Nelson-Denny is demonstrably unreliable for testing ESL students, a score of 17.69, or any other score, is meaningless. Six of the students earned above that score on one test and below that score on the other. If we give them a third test, it will be just a matter of luck as to which of those six students pass.

During the last meeting, it was proposed that I locate an assessment test that could be used with ESL students. I feel a misunderstanding occurred at that point. I did not feel at the time that what I learned would be helpful; however, I was willing to update my knowledge and pass on whatever I learned. My own thinking was and is, I don't think a desirable test exists, and if it does exist, I would still prefer that we not use it.

In my course on ESL testing a few years ago with Dr. Rebecca Oxford, I discovered that ESL testing is usually neither valid nor reliable. My memory is (and a former classmate agreed) that the only valid and reliable test of reading at that time for ESL students was the TOEFL. If we want to establish a clear and defendable measure of our student's abilities, giving the students the TOEFL as a pre- and post-test would be perfect. In talking to Bill Wallace, the Director of the English Language Institute at the University of Alabama, I learned that another test exists that has been used in many schools. This test was created at the University of Michigan, one of the strongest schools in the US for ESL studies. We will be receiving information in the mail soon.

However, Bill Wallace does not use such a test at the ELI, nor do I recommend our using it. Why? I need to restrict my remarks about a test I have no information on, so I will explain my reasoning using the TOEFL as my example since I studied the TOEFL at length. I can begin by giving the positive information about the TOEFL. The reliability and validity information on the TOEFL is extensive, and the TOEFL compares extremely well with the most accurate tests given. Creating a valid and reliable test is very expensive; that's why the TOEFL costs so much, and that's why other tests of its kind are so rare. However, in spite of validity and reliability, a test such as the TOEFL is a poor predictor of the students' success. Students who come to the US with low TOEFL scores are almost as likely to make high grades as students who come to the US with high TOEFL scores.

How can a valid and reliable test be worthless? The very act of creating a valid and reliable test excludes important factors that are much more important to the student's total success than the factors which the test is measuring. My experience teaching ESL students for almost nine years has proven time and again the poor correlation between English ability and academic success among ESL students. At Gadsden State, I taught ESL and American students separately, speaking slowing and explaining every detail to the ESL students and having rich dialogues with the American students. Nonetheless, on the weekly papers and on the in-class final (unlimited time), the papers written by the ESL students were far superior. There was no correlation between the TOEFL scores and grades in my classes. Students with high TOEFL scores frequently failed my English class while students with low scores often made "A's." Some of my "A" students could barely read, talk, or understand a lecture, but they did know how to work.

No assessment test allows the student the opportunity to utilize all of the student's resources, and therefore, assessment tests do not and can not predict success.

Therefore, I recommend against using the TOEFL or any test like it as a method of selecting incoming students. For further evidence, just look at the students who have been on this campus. Setsuko Morimoto, for instance, arrived with marginal English ability and left with weak English abilities yet still earned a 3.4 average. I doubt that she could score a 500 on the TOEFL. However, some of our recent arrivals, with TOEFL scores above 600, have done marginal work in English composition and have had poor grades overall.

I have even stronger objection to using a placement test such a the TOEFL to determine when a student is ready to leave a class. I had many ESL students at Gadsden State whose reading rate must have been measured in the hundreds of words per hour who made "A's" on their term papers. While improving students' reading abilities is a worthwhile objective, there is no established minimum standard nor should there be.

A second problem with an assessment test being used as a method of exiting students from class is that it is norm-based and not objective-based. When I was in school many years ago, only one "A" was allowed per class to allow a "bell curve" of grade distribution. That method of grading was unfair partially because it did not allow for the range of ability from class to class and even more because it ignored whether the students actually learned anything or not. A norm based on the entire population of students seems to avoid these errors, but it does not really avoid the second. After all, what is the content of the TOEFL? Does it reflect what ESL students here need to know or do for their classes? Should we work towards getting them to pass the placement test or should we work on preparing them for their tests and assignments here?

Teachers of composition have never relied on a norm. While goals and evaluation, as a result, vary widely from teacher to teacher, each English teacher is free to set a practical target, one that includes the level of the students' abilities and the requirements of schools and occupations. While I have maintained the same goals and standards from school to school, I have been free to vary the support and the assignments to best help my students be successful. I never judge my students' abilities; I am interested in their results.

I have tried to accomplish the same purpose with our English composition exit grammar exam which has a three-fold advantage over the assessment test which has been used in English 081: it provides a clear, realistic, and teachable target. On the other hand, the assessment test is based on a norm, I have no idea of what is expected of the students or even if they would know something worthwhile if they only learned enough to pass it, I am not sure if some students will ever be able to pass it, and I don't know what I need to teach them to get them to pass it.

A major failing of all assessment tests is that they are measuring ability, and ability under crippling circumstances, at least for some people. In one TESL class, we student teachers were asked to take vision tests through bad glasses, reading tests in the wrong language, and dexterity tests with thick gloves, the wrong hand, or improper tools. Under such circumstances, we became frustrated or disruptive or simply failed to perform well. When I ask one of my ESL students to write a paper within a few days, the student is limited to some extent but has freedom also. However, if I say the paper must be written in one hour, the time becomes the most restricting factor, just as plants in a desert find water to be the restricting factor. By adding that one restriction, I am no long measuring writing ability; I am measuring the ability to write against the clock. Little can be done to improve some abilities. For instance, I have never been able to improve my memory, dexterity, handwriting, spelling, or ability to distinguish left and right, in spite of being punished both at school and at home. Yet, my verbal ability, which was high in childhood, has continued to grow. To me a fair test is one that looks at the positive accomplishments of that person. For instance, if we were to evaluate the faculty at this college, should we use a test of ability based on the norms for faculty members in the United States, or would it be more fair to look at what each faculty member has accomplished?

To me, rather than make another assessment of the students' abilities, we should make an assessment of our students' needs. What do our students need to learn to do well on their reading assignments for their classes and how can we best help them reach that goal? I recognize that this second assignment is more difficult, more open to question, and more unpredictable. However, because it will establish a clearer, more realistic, and more teachable target, I think it will improve the students' results. As far as grades are concerned, I think the teacher can depend on his or her experience and judgment. However, the students' grades should be based on their accomplishments, not on their abilities.

Comments | DIRECTORIES: | The New World | Writing | Thoreau | Home | Bike Pages |
PAPERS: | Hamsters | The New World | Nelson-Denny | Computers | Lefthand |
WRITINGS: | RedRide | Negative | Firewood | Any Cave | J'ville | Carbiding |
http://www.kenkifer.com/writing/ellis.htm | copyright © 2000 Ken Kifer