STEM Shoutout: Dr. Naomi Shin and Dr. Jill P. Morford

UNM linguists collaborate on project to evaluate multilingual/multicultural children’s performance on standardized tests

Two linguists at UNM have recently won a McCune Award for their collaborative project to promote multilingual/multicultural competencies in children being raised by families in New Mexico.


Dr. Naomi Shin is an associate professor of linguistics and Spanish and Portuguese and Dr. Jill P. Morford is a professor of linguistics. Together they are working closely with Youth Development Incorporated (YDI) Head Start to address why multicultural/multilingual children at YDI don’t perform as well on the language section of a standardized test than on the cognitive development components of the same test. 


“This concern raises a question that urgently must be answered — Are the children truly lagging in language or is the standardized test inappropriate for this multicultural/multilingual population?” said Shin. 


With the assistance of YDI staff and three UNM student research assistants, Morford and Shin have made progress in addressing this difficult question. So far, they have reviewed the items of the standardized test being used by YDI and are currently analyzing 2900 children’s scores on the test to find what factors might be contributing to low scores on the language items.


“By investigating this question and exploring alternative assessments, Albuquerque YDI staff will be well-positioned to help Head Start centers across New Mexico to follow best practices in language assessment and to promote language development in the multicultural/multilingual children of New Mexico,” said Morford.


The next steps of the project will include collecting speech samples from multicultural/multilingual children in September and comparing scores on the standardized test to a more natural measure of language skills, such as the complexity of language used in the speech samples.


“This work is meaningful because there are direct and clear consequences for children in our community. If they are being assessed by instruments that don’t fit their multilingual/multicultural profiles, then we are sure to miss a lot of the picture and underestimate the children’s abilities,” said Shin. 


In August 2019, along with two graduate research assistants, Tamera Yazzie and Ashley Chaves, and one undergraduate research assistant, Raegan Reeves, Shin and Morford provided a workshop for about 150 pre-school teachers to discuss the project’s findings and to learn about the teachers’ experiences educating preschoolers. 


“An exciting part of the project is that we have the opportunity to discuss our findings with Head Start teachers. We hope, in turn, that our findings regarding the standardized testing can be useful for their own classroom practices and, ultimately, for supporting the children’s academic success,” said Morford.


In Fall 2019, Shin, Morford, and their graduate research assistants will be presenting their research at the Hispanic Linguistics Symposium in El Paso, Texas, and La Cosecha Dual Language Conference in Albuquerque.