Monday, November 7, 2011

Decisions, decisions....about tier placement

“It’s time to make the donuts!” Recently I was reminded of that classic TV commercial.  The diligent baker wakes up in the early morning hours to make fresh donuts. He is hard at work carefully making various types of donuts and motivating his fellow bakers.   Right now in several WIDA states, including Illinois and Minnesota, educators are being called “to make the donuts.” For them, it is time to order pre-identification labels for ACCESS for ELLs and determine what tier of the test their students will be taking in a few months.  In my role as a professional developer, I am often asked about this topic.  Just last week,  a gentleman told me that if he hadn’t been attending my workshop on understanding and using ACCESS score reports, he would have been stuck at his desk all day determining tier placements for dozens and dozens of students.  So let me share with you a few of the tips, tricks and helpful links that I shared with him.
As you may know, all kindergarten English language learners (ELLs) take the same ACCESS for ELLs® test.  In fact, kindergartners take the test one on one with a test administrator.  That test administrator decides at what point to stop testing the student, based on the student’s responses.  Similarly, all students in grades 1-12 are individually administered the speaking portion of the exam.  If you are new to administering the ACCESS or are looking to refresh your memory, click here for information on the online ACCESS for ELLs test administrator training.
But the Listening, Reading and Writing portions of the ACCESS for ELLs test for students in grades 1-12 is tiered.  In other words, there are three different tiers (versions) of the test.  WIDA created this tier system so that you can use your testing time with students as efficiently as possible.  The basic idea is that students new to the English language will be challenged sufficiently with questions from the first few levels of English language proficiency (ELP).  Similarly, students with higher levels of ELP don’t need to sit for test questions from the first few levels of English language proficiency. 
 Several months before the test is given, educators need to decide which tier each student will take.  So how do we know which tier to choose?  Thankfully WIDA has provided us with a few general rules of thumb, a lovely chart (Criteria for Tier Selection Chart ), and a seven minute online Tier Placement for ACCESS for ELLs Tutorial – complete with several sample student scenarios. 
So you may be wondering, what about my state?  When do we have to determine tier placements?  Every state has its own set of dates. Here in Illinois we give the ACCESS for ELLs in mid-January, so tier placement decisions are being made now in late October and early November.  In other states, that timeline is different.  Just click on your state on the WIDA Member States page for your state’s testing dates and ordering deadlines. 

Written by: Tammy King


  1. Excellent blog post and I appreciated the link to the Criteria for Tier Placement page. Thx!

  2. Hi Tammy,

    I feel that tier selection is very difficult for ELLs with learning disabilities. I have a 2nd grader who got a 1.0 in reading, a 1.5 in writing, a 3.4 in speaking and a 5.0 in listening last year, on a Tier B test. I am sure he hit the cap on the listening score but was overwhelmed by the reading test. I wish I could give him a tier A reading and a Tier C listening. I understand that it doesn't matter on the speaking and writing portions.Would it be possible to mix and match like that? Other advice?


  3. Nancy,
    Thanks for your patience as I did a little research on this subject for you. But first let me say this. Yes, in some cases, a students’ specific learning disability can complicate the tier selection process. But, it is not possible to give the same student tests from different tiers. The scoring just wouldn't work out. With that said, it is important to consider each student’s individual strengths and weaknesses when selecting a tier for him. For example, if a student has a disability primarily in reading, the introductions to the Writing prompts or the text on the Speaking test (for Tiers B &C) might cause the student to become discouraged. This could result in the student shutting down before he begins the actual speaking or writing portion of the test. Also, you are correct, students can earn a score from 1-6 on any tier of the Speaking or Writing tests. I would suggest reviewing the ACCESS FOR ELLs® Guidelines for Accommodating English
    Language Learners with Disabilities as you make these decisions.(Copy and paste this link into your browser to go straight to the document- ). If you would like some additional feedback for this specific student, please contact the WIDA help desk at or email me directly at .