BBE Annual Speaker Series: Dr. Elana Shohamy on Equitable Testing of Multi-Bilingual Populations

by Nori Kato

Dr. Elana Shohamy begins her lecture for BBE and AL/TESOL students.

Dr. Elana Shohamy begins her lecture for BBE and AL/TESOL students.

Students and faculty emerged on a crisp Spring evening for the annual speaker series organized by the Bilingual/Bicultural Education (BBE) Program on April 2, 2015.

Professor Patricia Martínez-Álvarez introduced this year’s speaker, Dr. Elana Shohamy from Tel Aviv University, who gave a presentation to students and faculty from the BBE program alongside many Applied Linguistics/Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) students in attendance.

Dr. Shohamy is a professor of Language education and is the founder and editor of the journal, Language Policy. In 2009, she won the Cambridge International Language Testing Association Distinguished Achievement Award for her groundbreaking work in critical testing. Much of Dr. Shohamy’s work focuses on the misuse of testing in language assessments.

Speaking with fervent urgency, her presentation at Teachers College, “Critical Issues of Assessment of Multi-Bilingual Populations,” focused on challenging language tests, the penalization of multilingual and immigrant populations and recognizing the advantages of bilingualism rather than the problems many claim it incurs.

“Theoretically, I really believe that multilingual tests are really the only way to get the multilingual repertoire,” said Dr. Shohamy in the beginning of her presentation. She said scholars in the linguistics community have been discussing “translanguaging,” or the dynamic use of multiple languages, is emerging as a necessary component of equitable testing because native languages have lost their acceptance.


Dr. Elena Shohamy

“It’s clear to almost everybody that at least if people know more than one language, we cannot just let it go, that language has to be counted, it has to be part of the linguistic repertoire,” she said. “Over the years people have said that this is discrimination in many ways, because although I know all these other languages, how come nobody looks at them?”

Dr. Shohamy speaks several languages herself, and said she used to hide her own native language and identity to fit in with the dominant culture. “Not recognizing my language is not recognizing me,” she said.

“The worst question that people are being asked which is, ‘where are you from?’ The ‘where are you from’ always is indicative — you are not part of us,” she said. Dr. Shohamy noted she wanted to find ways to give credibility to native languages.

Turning to the field of assessment, she said she believed the field of applied linguistics and testing is in a state of crisis. “Without learning how to assess multilingualism or translanguaging or the full repertoire, we will not be able to proceed.”

While the BBE program does not require students to take courses for assessment, the faculty understands the importance of testing in schools with bilingual students. The BBE program took advantage of Dr. Shohamy’s visit with the Applied Linguistics and TESOL program to give their students a chance to learn more about assessment and it’s dangers.

“This is a rare opportunity for BBE students to get assessment information,” said Lauren Wyner, BBE Program Secretary and Ph.D. candidate for the Applied Linguistics Program. “The missing component we’re working towards is assessment.”

After studying several language tests internationally, Dr. Shohamy noted the groups most marginalized by language testing are immigrants. As an example, she showed findings from math tests given to Russian students who immigrated to Israel. One group of students received the test in Hebrew and Russian, while the other group was given questions written only in the second language, Hebrew. With the first group resulting with much higher scores, Dr. Shohamy noted that second language learners still heavily rely on both languages, especially in academics.

“It takes so many years [as an immigrant] to learn the language well,” she said.

In a second study students were given a writing test where researchers found that the questions themselves, not just how they are presented, were discriminatory against immigrants. Test items rooted in traditional Israeli Jewish culture, for example, would unfairly be in favor of native Israeli students. “We can see right away which items are most discriminating against immigrants,” she said. Now that the test creators are aware of these barriers to equitable testing, they can attempt to avoid them in the future.


BBE and AL/TESOL Students

The message of Dr. Shohamy’s presentation built upon foundations of social justice already embedded in the BBE program and in many of the courses in the TESOL program. She left students wondering how they can convince stakeholders to adopt new tests to these new constructs of critical testing?

Dr. Shohamy’s presentation brought together students from all three disciplines with her findings bridging the assessment gap between the programs.

This May, the BBE, Applied Linguistics and TESOL programs continued garnering their relationship as side by side language advocates when they hosted the second annual joint student symposium with New York University and Hunter College.

All photos by Nori Kato.




Nori Kato is a Staff Writer and Office Assistant for the Department of Arts and Humanities. She is also an M.A. student in the International Educational Development program at Teachers College.