Modification to standardized tests for speakers of nonmainstream dialects

The authors of this paper discuss how, when an SLP evaluates a young speaker of a nonmainstream American English dialect (NMAE), s/he is faced with two tasks: first, to determine if the child is a speaker of a nonmainstream dialect, and then to determine if that child does or does not have a language disorder.

Though the task may seem straightforward at first glance, it can be incredibly challenging. One major barrier is that children use NMAE variably. Conversational contexts are more likely to elicit NMAE use, then use can also change per communication partner. Dialect use also changes with age; the authors state, “… the general trend is that use of NMAE features drops during the first few years of elementary school as students master code-switching strategies, and then increases during adolescence as students begin using NMAE dialect for more social reasons (N.P. Terry et al., 2010; Van Hofwegen & Wolfram, 2010).” This variability is challenging. Then, the overlap between what’s considered ungrammatical in mainstream American English and grammatical in NMAE makes it all the more challenging.

As part of the evaluation process, SLPs may choose to use a combination of language sample analysis (LSA) with standardized testing. An adjustment that is often made to the standardized test in order to account for the child’s dialect is to apply scoring modifications—that is, count an item on a test as “accurate” if it’s accurate per the child’s dialect. And this is in-line with what is recommended within testing manuals, e.g. per the CELF-4 and CELF-5.

In this study, the researchers examined what happens when you try using scoring modifications on the CELF-4 with a sample of 299 2nd-grade students. They found that:

  • without scoring modifications, NMAE speakers were over-identified as having a language disorder
  • but with scoring modifications, the over-identification of children as having a language disorder was improved, but the under-identification of NMAE speakers who do truly have a language disorder also increased

Yikes. It’s well-known that using a standardized language assessment for a speaker of a nonmainstream dialect, when the test wasn’t designed with speakers of that dialect in mind, can provide inaccurate diagnostic results (see article for review). However, this study also provides clear data that the scoring modifications don’t exactly work well, either.

Currently, there isn’t a perfect solution. For now, it’s important for SLPs to simply understand the potential pitfalls they may encounter during assessment. The authors suggest that good options to add to the assessment protocol include: detailed case histories of the child’s abilities at both home and school, peer comparisons, LSA, and dynamic assessment. The authors acknowledge the huge need for more research on how to streamline this process, because even with some of the strategies that look promising (like dynamic assessment), we still don’t have adequate research to fully guide diagnostic decision-making.

Hendricks, A.E., & Adlof, S.M. (2017). Language Assessment With Children Who Speak Nonmainstream Dialects: Examining the Effects of Scoring Modifications in Norm-Referenced Assessment. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools. Advance online publication. doi:10.1044/2017_LSHSS-16-0060