Assessment for English learners: Content, language or both?
Wednesday, December 09, 2015
Ask teachers about the importance of assessment, and they will likely begin sharing about their daily practice of checking student understanding and determining needed adjustments to instruction to help students achieve at higher levels.
They will also discuss the end-of-lesson, unit or term tests and assignments they give to see what students learned. The myriad standardized tests students take today will also likely be discussed, and how English learners and other populations are negatively affected by these assessments.
Ask most teachers about how to adjust their assessments for English learners, and the types of assessments they use for language versus content understanding, and you will likely get a much shorter response. For most teachers, the importance of assessment is clear and obvious, but few teachers know which assessment techniques to use when working with English learners, especially those at beginning proficiency levels in English.
While there is no perfect set of assessment strategies that will work with all students, some important considerations should be taken into account in order to gain the valuable information we seek through the assessment process. While these considerations and tools cannot necessarily be applied to the standardized tests students have to take, we can adjust our classroom practices to help students achieve at higher levels.
Formative and summative assessments
By definition, formative assessments are designed to gather feedback and information that can be used by the teacher to guide ongoing instruction. Formative assessment should be informal, low stakes and conducted often.
The information and data gathered through formative assessment helps the teacher determine if the students are making progress and understanding the information and skills being taught. Instruction can then be adjusted based on the students' success, or lack thereof.
Summative assessment, on the other hand, is used to measure the level of success or proficiency that students have reached after an instructional unit. The level of success is usually measured against a standard or benchmark of some sort.
At times, teachers use ready-made, end-of-chapter or unit exams created by publishers as a means of summative assessment, and at other times create their own assessments, tests or exams. In either case, assessment can be challenging for English learners.
Content assessment, language assessment or both?
One of the first questions we should ask ourselves is if the tool being used is assessing content knowledge, language skills or both. Often the point of any assessment, be it formative or summative, is to determine student understanding and comprehension of content concepts.
For English learners, the way questions are formulated and the linguistic demand of the task can impede full communication of their level of understanding. While content and language cannot be completely separated — students need the key vocabulary to more deeply understand and communicate their understanding of the concepts — teachers should determine if their questioning and the task at hand is helping or hindering student communication of understanding.
If students do not understand the question, or are unclear about how to complete the task, the teacher may get a false reading of the true level of understanding of the concepts being taught. Similarly, if student language skills are getting in the way of determining the level of understanding of the content, or if teachers are focused on grammatical errors, spelling or other language skills, English learners' grades may be negatively affected and teachers may not get an accurate reading of student comprehension.
In some instances — such as for teachers of English as a New Language or English Language Arts — assessment of language skills and growth may be of primary concern. In these cases, the questions and tasks should also be carefully crafted in order for students to demonstrate growth in language skills that are being taught.
Just as in the case of assessing content, content and language cannot be completely separated. Language assessment is often determined through student discussion or writing on a concept or subject being taught.
The SIOP Model and other effective instructional models for English learners advocate for both content and language objectives in lessons. These objectives should be clearly stated and shared with students so they are clear on what they should know and be able to do in a given lesson. Our assessments, then, should be directly tied to these objectives.
In the content-area classroom, the content objective may be the driving force of the lesson, and the language objective the vehicle to help students more deeply understand and communicate their learning of the content. In the language classroom, the language objective may take the front seat with the content as a vehicle for learning and practicing language skills.
The assessments should reflect this; determine the emphasis of content and language based on the objectives of the lesson. Care should be taken to understand the proficiency levels of the students in the class and not let linguistic errors negatively impact student achievement if those skills have not yet been taught or acquired by the students.
Content assessment: Strategies and tools
In designing or reviewing assessments to determine the level of learning of content knowledge and skills, teachers should carefully consider the types of questions and projects students will complete. They should determine the level of linguistic demand and assure English learners will understand the question or task and be able to adequately demonstrate their level of understanding of the concepts and skills. This can be especially difficult with students at the beginning proficiency levels of English.
Designing clear and direct questions are one way to scaffold assessments for English learners. For students at more beginning proficiency levels, ask more direct questions or give simple commands. This may entail shortening the length of the question or simplifying the language in the statement.
For example, rather than a statement such as "Numerous events and issues led to the American Revolution. List and explain five events and/or issues that led to the American Revolution," teachers might simplify to "What led to the American Revolution? List and explain five events and issues." Shorter, more direct questions or commands may be easier to understand and respond to.
Sentence frames, paragraph frames and sentence starters are another scaffold that can be provided to students in order to help them answer questions or provide information while lowering the linguistic demand. Sentence frames and sentence starters allow students to focus on the content area words and phrases that demonstrate their knowledge and understanding without having to focus on how to put the words together into coherent sentences.
These tools can embed general academic language students have been learning and practicing as part of the language objectives, and students can be asked to add in the domain specific vocabulary relevant to the topic being assessed.
Graphic organizers are a proven technique to have students demonstrate their knowledge while lowering the linguistic demand. There are many examples of useful graphic organizers such as the mind map, Venn diagram, fishbone and others. To scaffold the graphic organizers for students at more beginning proficiency levels, fill in portions of the graphic organizer to provide clarity or examples, or to demonstrate expectations.
Sketching and drawing are effective tools for helping students demonstrate their knowledge with limited language skills required. A diagram or sketch can be used as a standalone product, or labels, phrases or longer explanations can be added to help students show what they know. Encourage or require that students use the appropriate vocabulary being studied as desired on the sketch, drawing or diagram.
Projects that include an artistic element can be used effectively to assess student learning as well. Having students write a children's book, create an advertisement or make a collage can lower the linguistic demand while giving the students an opportunity to creatively demonstrate their learning. Other strategies such as dramatization and tableau (wherein students create a frozen scene) or developing hand signals or gestures for concepts and topics can also be used to assess content understanding.
When assessing content knowledge, and especially when grading such assessments, be they summative or formative, be cognizant of what is being assessed. Are you marking students down for grammatical errors, spelling or other errors that are typical for students at that particular proficiency level?
While it may not be appropriate to have no expectations for the quality of writing or correct spelling, grammar and punctuation, consider giving these aspects of the assessment a lower importance or percentage if the primary purpose of the assessment is to determine content knowledge, skills and learning.
Language assessment: Strategies and tools
When the primary purpose of the assessment is to determine language learning and growth, the content of the assessment may take a back seat. This is not always the case, of course, depending on the classroom and objectives.
In the case of language assessments, however, teachers should design and focus the assessment so that it provides opportunities for students to demonstrate that they have learned and acquired the language structures, vocabulary and grammatical skills that have been taught.
Objectives can be shared for assessments in addition to lessons. Students should know they are to demonstrate a particular language skill on the assessment. The skills taught may be based on the English language proficiency standards used in your state, or may be skills that have been taught by the teacher based on student need.
For example, the teacher may have been helping the students to write compound sentences by combining two simpler sentences. Have students demonstrate this skill in their writing in a response to a question that is either related to the content being studied or to a familiar topic. Similarly, the assignment can be to tell a story (or describe an event) utilizing the past tense, being sure to keep the tense consistent throughout the writing or speech.
Many language teachers are familiar with Daily Oral Language, wherein students correct errors on a given passage. This activity may be used as a warm-up at the beginning of a lesson or during instruction when practicing particular skills. It can also be used as an assessment of student learning once students have practiced the skill sufficiently. Dictation can also be an effective tool to determine if students have mastered particular grammatical skill or spelling of key words.
The Dictated Language Assessment is a strategy that helps teachers to assess student language skills in small groups. Gather a small group of English learners with similar proficiency levels in a small group. Give each student a different colored marker. Have students retell a story, explain a procedure they are familiar with, or discus a concept being learned.
As each student shares, the teacher takes the marker from the student that is sharing and writes verbatim what the student says, one at a time. If they make a self correction, this can be indicated with a symbol or abbreviation such as an SC to indicate the change. Each student should be given two or three turns at a minimum to share so that the teacher can write the speaking sample for each student.
When completed, the teacher has a record of the oral language the students were able to produce at that given time. Record the date and the students' names to have a record. If conducted several times over the course of a given term or school year, the teacher will be able to see the changes in language skills and progress students have made over time.
Just as in the case with content-focused assessments, be cognizant of what specifically you are assessing and grading. If specific language features have not yet been taught, or if you have not made it clear to students that specific aspects of language will be graded, consider grading only those aspects that you have pointed out will be assessed.
There is nothing wrong with telling students that everything, including spelling, grammar, content, etc., will count on the exam, but depending on your objective, you might consider only grading or correcting specific, targeted areas that you and the students have been working on.
While assessment is a critical aspect of education, differentiating assessment for English learners based on their language proficiency is a difficult task. Although the considerations listed, such as determining if the assessment is focused on content, language or both, and implementing some of the ideas listed will help, they will not make the assessment process flawless.
There are numerous commercially available products that assess students on language, as well as books and tools to help you differentiate your assessments. Ultimately, knowing your students well and taking into consideration their language proficiency level will be helpful in determining appropriate assessments.
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