20 years of innovation: WIDA's advances in Standards, Assessments and Inclusion

June 6, 2023

WIDA is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year! As a way to mark this occasion, we’ve asked staff members to write about the ways in which WIDA enacts its mission, vision and values. In the following article, Ken Bond, Laurene Christensen and David MacGregor discuss innovation at WIDA.


Innovation is one of WIDA’s five organizational values, along with service, the Can Do Philosophy, collaboration and social justice. WIDA has been innovating since it began: providing a comprehensive system of language standards, assessments, research, professional learning and educator assistance for almost 20 years.

As WIDA’s 20th anniversary approaches, let’s take a look at some recent exciting innovations in the areas of standards, assessments and inclusion.

Standards Innovation

WIDA has always emphasized the needs of educators as it develops resources. In 2004, WIDA built a groundbreaking English language development framework that, for the first time, explicitly complimented language for social and instructional purposes with a focus on the language needed to be successful in K-12 academic content areas. The standards, and the accompanying framework, guided educators of multilingual learners as they created classroom environments that co-constructed connections with students between the dimensions of language and their uses in language arts, math, science, social studies, and other instructional settings.

Over the years, as the field developed, WIDA has continued to innovate through new editions of the English Language Development Standards Framework. These new iterations were released in 2007, 2012 and 2020. In addition, WIDA created Early Language Development Standards, Spanish Language Development Standards, and more recently Marco ALE, a Spanish language arts framework. Each new edition underscored the WIDA Can Do Philosophy while integrating the latest evidence-based understanding of language development in K-12 settings.

The WIDA ELD Standards Framework, 2020 Edition repositions Standard 1 (Language for Social and Instructional Purposes) to underscore the connection of the personal to the academic. The 2020 Edition also expands the notion of academic language by encouraging students to use their full linguistic repertoires, including translanguaging, and all their meaning-making resources. It highlights multimodality and enhances the four domains of listening, speaking, reading and writing into broader communication modes (interpretive and expressive) that are more inclusive and enhance accessibility options.

Assessment Innovation

From the beginning, WIDA and our partners at the Center for Applied Linguistics developed an innovative assessment designed to be appropriate for multilingual learners with varying degrees of English proficiency, with a cluster and tier format intended to deliver tests that were appropriate for students both in terms of linguistic complexity and test content. However, recognizing that there would always be room for improvement, we built in an annual refreshment cycle, with educators involved in nearly every step of the process.

One of the first major innovations in ACCESS for ELLs came with the development of the kindergarten test, first administered in 2008. Kindergarten ACCESS for ELLs was designed to be appealing and developmentally appropriate for kindergarten students, with extensive use of a gameboard and manipulatives, and stopping and skipping rules built in to ensure that students are presented with material tailored to their level of proficiency in English.

An Enhanced Assessment Grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Education in 2011 gave WIDA the opportunity to develop an online assessment. Through this process, we were able to develop Listening and Reading tests that maintained the strengths of the paper test while adapting to the proficiency of the student, thus improving the accuracy and reliability of the test. Additionally, the online test delivery platform allows for local scoring of recorded responses on the WIDA Screener Speaking test.

WIDA does not believe in innovation for the sake of innovation. Rather, we strive to design our tests to the needs and abilities of the students and educators we serve. Educator input is an essential part of the test development process. For example, we considered developing an online version of Kindergarten ACCESS, but kept the paper and pencil test based on the valuable input from educators.

WIDA continues to investigate innovative test designs and practices. We are currently working on a redesign of Kindergarten ACCESS that is scheduled for release in 2025, and are updating the grades 1-12 test to incorporate updates to the WIDA ELD Standards Framework, 2020 Edition.

Innovations in Inclusion

Assessment innovation at WIDA includes making our products more inclusive. Early on, the transition to online assessment provided an opportunity for innovation in the area of accessibility and accommodations. Following from research, WIDA has taken a principled approach to test development and delivery, building on universal design principles. In addition, WIDA researchers noted that some of the access tools (e.g., highlighters, scratch paper) that were typically considered to be accommodations could, in fact, be used by all students; as a result, WIDA developed a tiered approach to accessibility tools and accommodations that has been in use for almost a decade.

Another WIDA innovation is WIDA Alternate ACCESS, WIDA’s assessment for English learners with the most significant cognitive disabilities. This assessment demonstrates WIDA’s commitment to inclusion, and incorporates some innovative assessment approaches, such as built-in support for individualization, including eye gaze and Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices.

WIDA is currently exploring potential innovative approaches to assessing English language proficiency for students who are blind or have other visual impairments. The unique needs of these students means that traditional assessment approaches that rely on visual scaffolding are not appropriate. WIDA researchers are investigating how new thinking in assessment development and psychometrics can offer innovative solutions for this small, but important population of English learners.

WIDA remains committed to our innovation value and will continue to draw upon research and practice to create the best resources for children, youth and educators.

About the Authors

Kenneth Bond is the consortium relations manager for the WIDA Consortium. Bond received his doctorate in educational leadership and organizational management from the University of Pennsylvania. His dissertation focused on navigating reclassification policy in WIDA Consortium state education agencies. He has worked to enhance educational environments for students, educators and families in his leadership roles in a public school district, a state department of education and various universities.

Laurene Christensen is the director of accessibility research at WIDA. In this capacity, she leads WIDA's work in the area of inclusive assessment. Christensen is also the co-principal investigator and project director for the Advancing ALTELLA project, a competitive assessment grant that was funded to support WIDA's efforts to revamp Alternate ACCESS. She has a Ph.D. in comparative and international development education from the University of Minnesota.

David MacGregor is an assessment researcher for the WIDA Consortium. MacGregor received his Ph.D. in applied linguistics from Georgetown University. He has an M.A.T. in TESOL and Spanish from the School for International Training and a B.A. in linguistics from the University of Chicago. Prior to coming to WIDA, MacGregor worked on various language assessment projects at the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), where much of his work was focused on WIDA-related projects.


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