Assessment of English Language Learners
Dr. Lorraine Valdez Pierce offers an in-depth introduction to assessment for teachers of English language learners — including performance-based standardized assessments, assessment as a tool for informing instruction, use of assessment to reinforce reading comprehension, and student self-assessment and self-monitoring.
For this webcast:
This webcast is made possible by AFT Teachers, a division of the American Federation of Teachers, as part of a Colorín Colorado partnership between AFT and Reading Rockets.
This 45-minute webcast is a thorough introduction to assessment for teachers of English language learners. Dr. Lorraine Valdez Pierce will discuss performance-based standardized assessments; assessment as a tool for informing instruction; use of assessment to reinforce reading comprehension; and student self-assessment and self-monitoring.
Dr. Lorraine Valdez Pierce will also provide practical advice on how ESL and classroom teachers can collaborate when assessing English language learners and making decisions based on those assessments. Tips on record keeping and rubrics are also included.
Lorraine Valdez Pierce is an Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Education at George Mason University. She focuses on designing curriculum and assessment procedures for English language learners at the Center for Language & Culture. She has also published articles in TESOL Journal, TESOL Matters, and Educational Assessment.
Delia Pompa is the moderator of this webcast. She is the Vice President of the Center for Community Educational Excellence at the National Council of La Raza.
The articles and books below were chosen by Reading Rockets to help you learn more about this issue. The links to Amazon.com are provided for your convenience, and a portion of your purchase helps support Reading Rockets. Thank you!
Articles about assessment of English language learners
- Performance-Based Assessment: Promoting Achievement for English Language Learners (68K PDF)*, by Lorraine Valdez Pierce (George Mason University)
- English Language Learners and High-Stakes Tests: An Overview of the Issues, by Bronwyn Coltrane (Center for Applied Linguistics)
- Assessment Portfolios: Including English Language Learners in Large-Scale Assessments, by Emily Gomez (Center for Applied Linguistics)
- Assessment and Accommodations for English Language Learners: Issues and Recommendations, by Jamal Abedi (Journal of School Improvement)
Books by our presenter
- Authentic Assessment for English Language Learners: Practical Approaches for Teachers, by J. Michael O'Malley and Lorraine Valdez Pierce (Addison Wesley)
- Assessing English Language Learners, by Lorraine Valdez Pierce (National Education Association)
- Scoring Rubrics in the Classroom, by Judith A. Taylor & Jay McTighe (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.)
- A Teacher's Guide to Standardized Reading Tests, by Lucy Calkins, Kate Montgomery, Beverly Falk, and Donna Santman (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann)
- Testing for Language Teachers, by Arthur Hughes & Michael Swan (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.)
- ColorinColorado.org: Reading Rockets' sister site features information for families and educators of English language learners.
Sample assessment tools
- Teacher observation checklist (48K PDF)*
- Student self-assessment rating scale (52K PDF)*
- Analytic scoring rubric (44K PDF)*
- Discuss ways that assessment can promote learning.
- Generate your own definition of "performance-based classroom assessment."
- Share strategies you currently use that encourage students to monitor their own learning.
- How do a child's native language literacy skills help them acquire literacy skills in a second language?
- Is there a system in place at your school to assess native language literacy skills?
Delia Pompa: Hello, I’m Delia Pompa. Welcome to this year’s first Colorín Colorado webcast. Today, we’re going to talk about assessment for English language learners. Dr. Lorraine Valdez Pierce is here to help us. She’s coordinator of the ESL Teacher Licensure Program at the Graduate School of Education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Dr. Pierce, before we talk about assessment, tell us a little bit about English language learners, some of the characteristics that make teaching — make teaching them challenging.
Dr. Lorraine Valdez Pierce: Well, there are three big areas that make teaching English language learners challenging. The three areas are language, culture, and previous educational experience. So when it comes — when we’re talking about assessment, language is right up there as one of the big three with regard to the difference in language between the language that they speak and the language that they’re being assessed or tested in. Then there’s culture, which will maybe lead to some differences in classroom behavior from what native speakers would be producing or preparing. But then there’s also the parental role. When parents come from different cultures they may be less eager to run and participate in the American public school system. And then finally, the previous educational experience that these children bring may include literacy, or not literacy. And this is a very important variable in assessing students.
Delia: You’ve brought up lots of characteristics. Could you go back and define — give us a little more information on each one. Language, could you define how that would be different? What we would see there. What a teacher might see.
Dr. Pierce: Well, children who speak English as a second language, or bilingual children, come from, you know, over 100, 200 different language backgrounds. And what we know is the closer the language is to English, such as a romance language, the easier it would be for that child to acquire the language. But the more distance between their language, such as Russian, or Arabic, or Turkish, the more distance there is between the written language and the spoken language and English, the more challenge there might be in learning the English language. So that’s — and that's the language part. The cultural part comes where children are raised in a home where they are maybe given a rather passive role, and they’re taught to also go to school and just do what the teacher tells you, and not really engage or ask questions. And so the teacher may get the impression that these children are passive, or even not interested, or not making the effort, when really it’s a cultural upbringing issue.
Delia: So the culture really reflects the styles of the different children and what their family values and what childrearing styles.
Dr. Pierce: Right. Childrearing definitely has an impact on the child’s behavior and performance in the school.
Delia: And finally, previous education. How does that play into it? How does that make a big difference?
Dr. Pierce: Well, research tells us now, we have pretty clear evidence that says a child who brings native language literacy to the classroom has a tremendous advantage over the child who does not bring any kind of significant amount of native language literacy. So what we want to determine then when a child comes to the classroom is whether or not they have literacy in the native language. And if they do, then we can use that as a building block to acquiring English as a second language literacy.
Delia: Makes a lot of sense. So, it seems like assessment would be particularly important for this group. What exactly do you mean by assessment? We toss that term around all the time. What are we talking about when we talk about assessment?
Dr. Pierce: Yeah, assessment basically is the gathering of data, information, on a student’s learning or knowledge or skills. And with regard to reading, it’s what kind of information do we have on the student’s reading skills and ability?
Delia: And is that a formal process that we use? Because it seems to me that teachers are gathering information on kids all the time.
Dr. Pierce: Right. It can be formal or informal. At the classroom level, it’ll most likely be informal. And it must take the place of some kind of observation on the part of the teacher and then translating the observation to some kind of documentation.
Delia: So it’s very broad.
Dr. Pierce: Well, the assessment itself has become a key issue when we look at No Child Left Behind, and when we look at Adequate Yearly Progress, which is another term we toss around a lot. What can you tell us about how assessment fits into No Child Left Behind in general, and to Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, which we’ll try not to use, Adequate Yearly Progress we’ll say.
Delia: In particular, how is that interaction taking place when you look at assessment, and then also when you look at the context of the characteristics of these children?
Dr. Pierce: Well, I think there’s good news and there’s bad news. I think the good news is at last we have some requirements on the part of the federal government and the states following those requirements, for accountability, accountability for the learning of English language learners who, for the longest time, have been an invisible student population, because their test scores on standardized tests have typically been excluded, or disaggregated. But now this is no longer allowed. And so the good news is we do have accountability requirements for monitoring the progress of these students. The bad news is that most school systems take the approach that one size fits all. And so the same tests that are used with native speakers of English are now being used with English language learners for the most part. And those are not appropriate, because of the language difference. And then, in the case of states that are developing native language assessments, this is still in kind of an — kind of an emerging field. There’s not a whole lot of research out there on native language assessments for accountability at the state level. So you see a lot of states kind of searching for answers, and the whole field is evolving. So it’s a very challenging aspect there, to get issues such as accountability and reliability and validity, important measurement issues addressed at these levels of assessment.
Delia: You used the word "disaggregation" awhile ago, which is probably something a lot of our audience is hearing about. What’s the key thing about disaggregation that’s important about English language learners in the context of No Child Left Behind?
Dr. Pierce: In the context of No Child Left Behind, disaggregation means the ability to find out how specific populations are doing with regard to approaching learning goals and objectives. So it’s very important not to just mix in the English language learners with native speakers, but to pull out that data and information on all English language learners in the school system to find out how this group is progressing as a group from year to year.
Delia: So then how does assessing English language learners become an important piece of what we’re doing? Why is it especially important?
Dr. Pierce: It’s especially important when we talk about accuracy. And accuracy is another word for validity. That is, if we’re going to make inferences from test data then we need to make sure that those inferences about where these students are, what they’ve learned, and what they haven’t learned, that these inferences are accurate. And the only way you’re going to get accuracy if you either use the language of instruction that these students are familiar with or use different kinds of assessments that more closely relate to instruction.
Delia: Okay, so how would a school handle a new student? Let’s take a look at a real-life example.
Narrator: Eight-year-old Marlon Escobar Lopez has an important appointment today. He’s checking into his new school system in Arlington, Virginia. He’s at the Arlington Intake Center where staff will figure out exactly what he needs from his new teachers.
Silvia Koch: Intake Center is the place where children who speak another language or have another language background enter school.
Narrator: The Intake Center stays very busy. Arlington’s English language learners speak 104 languages and come from 122 different countries.
Teacher: Most of the children speak Spanish. But those kids are very diverse, too, both culturally and economically.
Teacher: Children from the middle class have had certain experiences that other students may not have had. They’ve been to museums. They have been read to in their own language.
Narrator: Marlon is from Honduras. He looks like he’s ready for school. But will the school be ready for him? The process starts with his dad.
Silvia Koch: Parents are just that part of the learning equation that we cannot do without. You know, it’s the child, the parent, the teacher. They’re the three most basic components.
Narrator: The interview gives Arlington some important information about Marlon, like the fact that he’s been to school in the United States for a year already. [Speaking Spanish]
Silvia Koch: We look not only at the academic background but we also look at the whole child. We look at his health situation. We look at family history.
Narrator: When his dad’s finished with his questions, it’s Marlon’s turn. His teachers need to know how well Marlon can understand spoken and written English.
Teacher: Can you put the girl behind the man?
Teacher: So if you’re assessing a child you not only want to assess their knowledge of letters and sounds and so forth in English, but you want to tap into it in Spanish, too. [Speaking Spanish] Because whatever they know in Spanish, you can be quite certain you can use to help them acquire the skills in English.
Marlon: ...put strawberries and carrots...
Narrator: Marlon can read a little bit in English already. And his comprehension skills in both languages are strong. So the Intake Center places him in a second grade class for English language learners.
Teacher: Short sound of "I", everybody.
Narrator: His teachers at Abingdon Elementary have received all the information gathered at the Intake Center, both social and academic, so they know exactly where to start with Marlon.
Silvia Koch: Using time for instruction right away at the correct and appropriate level is important to us. We want all our students to achieve at a high level, to be challenged, regardless of where they started.
Teacher: Indigo, excellent!
Delia: That was a very complex process. So what do you do if you're a school that has not had a lot of experience with this? How do you handle a child like Marlon?
Dr. Pierce: Well, first you need to make an assessment, a determination of native language literacy, and prior educational experience. And to the extent that that shows that the child, the learner, has some native language literacy, you will know where you can begin as far as sound/symbol recognition, phonemic awareness, especially if the language is a romance-based language similar to English. If the assessment determines that the child is not literate in the native language then there will need to be some serious, perhaps one-on-one instruction that goes on with the student to acquire literacy, if not in the native language, if that’s not possible, then in a meaningful way, in a very meaningful way, in English.
Delia: I’m guessing that some assessments are more appropriate for English language learners than others. Could you tell us about what an inappropriate assessment might look like?
Dr. Pierce: Well, some of the problems with inappropriate assessments, there’s at least three problems. One of them is a heavy language load. Another one is that the test item is presented out of context. And the third one is that the test item might have a cultural base. And so if we talk about heavy language load, a heavy language load is where the wording of a test item or directions to take the test presents an obstacle in and of itself to the student responding to the item and giving you the information that you’re actually looking for. And so if I can’t get past the directions or the wording of the item to give you the answer, that’s going to pose a problem. That’s what I’m calling heavy language load. The second problem is that the items tend to be decontextualized on a standardized or multiple choice test where you have these items separate from any meaningful reading passage or meaningful personal experience, and these items, in and of themselves, may out of context provide a challenge, a stop to the student who goes, "Out of context this doesn’t really make a lot of sense." That’s what I mean by meaningful. It’s got to be in some kind of context. Finally, the cultural base, itself. A lot of cultural assumptions are made on the background knowledge of the learner. And depending on whether it’s a teacher-made test, or even a standardized test, these assumptions may be incorrect. And if the student has to get past these assumptions to answer the item in reading then — and if he’s not able to do so successfully then the item itself will not serve the purpose for which it was intended.
Delia: This is something that people ask about all the time. And I’d like you to talk a little bit more about the cultural background and what is an example of cultural bias in a test? If you could just give us a sample.
Dr. Pierce: Oh, sure. An example, I’ve seen so many reading tests, standardized reading tests with samples of cultural base, or some have called cultural bias. If it’s a test of reading and you have a question in there about Halloween and there’s a picture of a witch in there, and the student comes from a country where — or background — because many of these students can be native-born — a background where they’re not familiar with Halloween or witches, then your purpose of determining the reading ability has been defeated. Because if I’m not familiar with witches and Halloween, even if I’m able to read every word on that item, I will not be able to determine the answer.
Delia: A good example. So how does all this relate to assessment of reading skills in English language learners?
Dr. Pierce: Well, the way this relates is that the assessment of reading for English language learners needs to be very much tied to classroom instruction and exposure to the kinds of literacy that students are exposed to in K-3 and upper elementary grades, and beyond. That is, there has been, I think, a serious gap occurring between the standardized test that we see now more and more on the market, and the actual kinds of assessments that are taking place in the classroom that teachers are using to diagnose, very specifically, decoding skills, reading comprehension skills, reading strategies and so on, that take place in an interactive, hands-on way that provides the context that I’ve been talking about, the context for learning, which is pretty much absent on a paper/pencil, standardized test.
Delia: So those are the benefits of a classroom assessment in reading skills. Is there a way that a teacher can then connect that to the broader test, or the standardized test? Are they useful in supporting that?
Dr. Pierce: Absolutely! Teacher-made assessments can be used. First of all, they can be linked to state standards, which is the basis for most state standardized tests. So, first of all, teacher instruction and teacher assessment can be linked to state standards assuring that connection to the state test. Secondly, they need to reflect what the student's experience has been in the classroom as far as learning. So if you’re having the student do a retelling — or retelling of a story, or a reading passage, then this same activity can become an opportunity for assessment.
Delia: So, as a teacher is listening to you right now and wondering how her assessment is going to prepare the child, what should she be thinking about? What kind of classroom assessment should she be creating, or thinking about assessing in the child?
Dr. Pierce: Well, when we talk about classroom-based assessment, there’s two kinds: The first kind is the teacher-useful assessment, and the second kind is the student-friendly assessment. So the teacher assessment can be observations of student behavior and performance, such as ability to read letters, recognize letters and sounds, sound/symbol discrimination. The teachers can keep a checklist of reading skills. They can take anecdotal records. They can keep notes of when a student is making progress or having a particular problem. Documentation is such an important part of assessment, because all of us have our days go by very quickly, and we can quickly forget specific diagnostic details of student progress and learning. So it’s so important to keep records such as checklists, anecdotal records, scoring rubrics. Scoring rubrics which detail expectations for reading performance on a criterion reference scale.
Delia: What about assessing kids with disabilities, English language learners with disabilities? What would you do different then?
Dr. Pierce: English language learners with disabilities can be assessed using the same kinds of performance-based assessments, but perhaps with different kinds of materials, or different levels of materials. I know that English language learners with disabilities can be assessed using manipulatives, using pictures, using illustrations, which we tend to use with beginning level English language learners in any case. So it’s the same kind of approach, but possibly with different kinds of instructional material that they’re used to using in the classroom.
Delia: Now, I asked you that question assuming that teachers would know that children had disabilities. Often people talk about the difficulty in diagnosing someone with learning disabilities or misdiagnosing them if they’re second language learners. How does one prevent that through assessment?
Dr. Pierce: Well, one must take a history. One must take a history of the learner and find out, number one, what kinds of previous instruction he’s had or she’s had. And number two, interviewing the parents and finding out if the student’s had any learning issues, or previous teachers. And then number three, interviewing the student, him or herself, because they can usually tell you many times what they feel are problematic tasks for them in the classroom. And then again, most importantly on the part of the teacher, observation — observation of student — the student working in different tasks under different conditions, and comparing his before and after performance on these tasks.
Delia: You’ve been talking about assessment, and giving us some of the good examples of how you do that. I think some of our audience members might want to know what the next step is after assessment. How do you tie — how you make sure your assessment is tied to instruction?
Dr. Pierce: Well, the next step is informing instruction. That is, for too long, teachers have been taught to believe that assessment is something you do at the end of a book, or chapter, or unit test, or end of a grading period. And that’s more evaluation, where you’re making a decision for some purpose. But assessment comes way before, and must inform evaluation, and it must inform instruction. And assessment is something that needs to be conducted on a weekly, bi-weekly, monthly basis, so as to keep up with diagnosing student progress. So once you find out that the students, for example, are not able to summarize in your class. Summarizing, putting a summary of reading comprehension in your own words, has been shown to be one of the most challenging tasks for children learning another language. So if you can image your own self learning Japanese or Russian or Spanish and I ask you to summarize something that you’ve read, you can probably read it and understand it, but putting that in your own words, that’s a different kind of task. And that’s the kind of task where if the teacher determines that the students cannot put in their own words, or summarize what they’ve been reading about, then the direction for instruction is to give them the words, give them the examples, give them the models for how they can then summarize and accomplish that reading comprehension strategy.
Delia: It sounds as if you’re describing a sort of cycle of assessment that takes place in the classroom and in the program of instruction for English language learners. If you were to try and give us the pieces of that assessment, what would they look like? It would start with classroom assessment? Or would it start with another kind of assessment?
Dr. Pierce: Oh, that’s an excellent question. What we have is the teacher comes in, and many times the teacher will have information given or passed on to her or him from powers that be saying, "Here’s the student, here’s his folder, here’s his standardized test, and here’s his language proficiency results." And that’s a lot for any teacher to go through. But the first thing the teacher wants to do, at the classroom level is to do some kind of a needs assessment, or a diagnostic assessment, or a pre-assessment based on what he or she is going to be planning to teach for the next few weeks as to diagnose, produce a diagnostic profile on each child. And then be able to perhaps place these children in reading groups based on the results of this diagnostic assessment, and also direct instruction for different levels of ability, and so on. And then, yes, definitely, it’s a cycle. Assessment is definitely a cycle that needs to be used to systematically and continuously inform the instruction, the direction of the instruction for the students to take them from where they are to where they need to be with regard to state standards.
Delia: With regard then to tests that aren’t necessarily classroom tests, how would you advise our audience to fit this whole notion of classroom assessment into the larger — the state tests, or into looking at themselves with regard to the growth that the kids are going to show on state tests?
Dr. Pierce: All right, it is a fact that state tests are used to measure annual growth. By definition therefore, they will not be sensitive to weekly and monthly growth. Therefore, while it may be wise to compare teacher and classroom assessments on an annual or semi-annual basis to the standardized test score, it would — using that test score would not be useful for informing weekly and bi-weekly, and monthly assessments that are going to be so much more specific to instruction, and so much more diagnostic than those broad statewide tests could ever be.
Delia: So we’re talking about a very full program of assessment. Let’s take a look at a real-life example. This time we’ll catch a glimpse into the Mark Hopkins Elementary School in Sacramento, California, where teachers assess children who speak English, Spanish, Hmong, and more.
Mr. Lee: We’re gonna do our letters, pictures, and sound. Ready? Letter?
Mr. Lee: Picture?
Mr. Lee: Sound?
Narrator: Even in kindergarten an important ingredient of any reading program is assessment.
Dr. Edward Kane'enui: We don’t want to start a program in September and wait 'til June to get a sense for whether or not we’re successful. We want to start in September. We want to see how we’re doing in the middle of September, at the end of September, the beginning of November, every month we want to have some sense of whether or not the investment we’re making, the interventions we’re using are effective for kids. We can’t do that without progress monitoring systems.
Mr. Lee: Show me the front of the book.
Narrator: Mr. Lee regularly measures each student’s progress. Today, it’s Samuel’s turn.
Mr. Lee: Show me the title of the book. Good. I will show you letters. You tell me the name of the letter, okay? This one.
Mr. Lee: T, good.
Mr. Lee: Good. How about this one?
Narrator: Right now, he’s still very low in terms of reading, letter recognition.
Mr. Lee: Listen. Door, floor, sound the same? Good.
Narrator: But he should come up.
Mr. Lee: How about makes, shoes?
Narrator: Hearing a rhyme requires phonemic awareness. These quick tests will tell Mr. Lee which skills each child needs to boost. Reading coaches will offer one-on-one help to the bottom fifth of students.
Mr. Lee: Can you write your first name, last name for Mr. Lee? Okay, right here.
Mr. Lee: Most of my students, in fact, almost all of my students at the beginning of the year, they don’t know anything. And towards the end of the year, I have this feeling that I’ve done something good with them. You know, they just blossom.
Mr. Lee: Good. Keep going.
Mr. Lee: Even those who don’t speak English. So I feel real good about that.
Mr. Lee: Very good, Sam. Wow!
Narrator: K.D. Lee is leading his students on one of the most important journeys of their lives.
Mr. Lee: If you want to be on my train, you have to tell me a word that starts with the letter "S."
Narrator: Mr. Lee’s last stop today is bringing together phonemic awareness and letter sound correspondences.
Mr. Lee: Good. Get on the train, get on the train.
Narrator: Almost all of Mr. Lee’s kids are on track for becoming readers.
Mr. Lee: What sound? Help me.
Delia: Dr. Pierce, you’re an expert in this. What did you see in that classroom that the rest of us may not have noticed?
Dr. Pierce: Yeah, I saw the teacher engaging the student in a task, the task of doing something to follow specific instructions. And while the student was writing his name and performing certain literacy tasks, the teacher was keeping records. The teacher had already walked into the situation with a plan. He already had some kind of a checklist, or some kind of anecdotal record sheet. He knew exactly what he was looking for. And he was keeping records on this individual child to be able to carefully diagnose his strengths and needs. And then, therefore, direct instruction based on that.
Delia: Now, I imagine we might see that in any number of classrooms. What specifically, what techniques was he using that were appropriate to English language learners in this situation that we saw?
Dr. Pierce: Well, he was relating to prior experience and prior knowledge. He was asking him, "Write your name." And he was using manipulatives where he had the little flashcards up; manipulatives, any kind of hands-on experience. He had the learners engage in kinesthetic activities. There was quite an incentive to answer the question when he said, "You can get on my train." So he had kinesthetic activities, the learner felt that he was belonging if he was able to provide the correct answer. He had the students participate in writing down, there was a writing down task. And he was tapping prior knowledge and making the learners feel that they could contribute something in the classroom.
Delia: Now, this particular classroom was really diverse, it looked like. And clearly he wasn’t using the native language, because there were kids of so many different language backgrounds. How do you assess and diagnose in a classroom like that?
Dr. Pierce: Well, what you want to have is a common set of objectives or standards for teaching. And then compare each student’s accomplishments toward the standards. Instead of comparing the students to themselves, to each other in a class, you compare the student to his or her mastery of these objectives as specified in expectations for performance, on a scoring guide or checklist or criteria sheet. So it doesn’t matter if there’s a hundred different languages in the classroom. What matters is that the teacher is consistent in keeping records on how close or how far each student is from accomplishing the learning objective.
Delia: Now, earlier in this explanation you talked about the necessity to assess a child’s native language and to know where the student was. When you have a classroom that is this diverse and the teacher doesn’t have the capacity to speak all the languages, and doesn’t use the native language very much in the curriculum, how do you adjust for an English as a second language approach?
Dr. Pierce: Well, there’s two ways, I guess. One way that we’ve seen a lot of school systems do is to gather your resources. And you can gather resources from parents, from concerned neighbors, from business organizations in the community that can provide a native language resource. So gathering resources and networking is one way. The second way is the teacher herself or himself, providing language supportive activities in the classroom, which are referred to as scaffolding. Providing language supports in the classroom through reducing the language demand using possibly simplified language to the learners, writing everything on the board, directions step-by-step, making the sound/symbol connection. So if the teacher is talking rapidly, such as I am right now, teacher wants to identify the two or three priority points that we’re gonna be learning about today, and we’re gonna put these on the board so the students can constantly refer and see what’s on the board, and remember and recognize what was said earlier.
Delia: Sort of a preview of what they’re going to be doing?
Dr. Pierce: Right, previewing, involving the learners in games and kinesthetic activities, a lot of cooperative learning activities. There are a lot of teaching approaches and strategies that teachers can use to in particular reduce the nervousness, the affective load that students bring in when they’re nervous, and they’re not accustomed to working with students from other language backgrounds, or native speakers. We want these students to relax enough to bring their defenses down, so that they can open themselves up to learning.
Delia: Well, obviously, assessments help teachers determine what and how they teach, and you just talked about that, but can assessments themselves be used to promote learning?
Dr. Pierce: Yes, absolutely! There’s now a recent thrust about in the education field to help teachers understand that assessment is not simply for the purpose of auditing and counting and tallying, but that assessment itself can be used as a diagnostic tool for informing the teacher as to the immediate strengths, strengths and weaknesses, not just weaknesses, not just what the student does not know. But the learning strengths and weaknesses of the learner by, number one, keeping records and documenting, and then number two, providing feedback, providing descriptive feedback to the learner as to how close or how far he or she is from the goal.
Delia: How does this type of assessment apply specifically to English language learner students and to their teachers?
Dr. Pierce: English language learners can benefit tremendously from any kind of verbal or comprehensible written feedback that the teacher gives them that’s descriptive and productive and sends them on the path to learning. Simply giving the student back a paper, a writing paper with a C+ on it, does not give the learner any kind of direction for improvement. But a grade plus two or three comments on there, and I’m not talking about red inking the paper, bleeding the paper, that’s not going to help, that’s only going to intimidate. But what I’m talking about is one or two notes on what the student did well and what the student needs to work on further. This kind of descriptive feedback is so helpful for students who are searching for how to improve, but simply a grade, simply does not provide that kind of direction.
Delia: Dr. Pierce, that sounds like a difficult task for younger students. That sounds like something you could do with older students, but how do you do that with younger students? What kinds of feedback do you give them?
Dr. Pierce: I have worked with kindergarten teachers. I have worked with kindergarten and elementary teachers who they, themselves, have gone through a training sequence where they learn how to deliver this information to the students, even kindergarten and first grade students. And you could have wall charts, you could have smiling faces, you could have games, all kinds of figures there, where the student realizes that he or she has accomplished step one, step two, goal one, goal two, maybe not with numbers but color-coded things, representations of accomplishment at different levels. For example, a red light means stop. A green light means go. Go ahead, move onto the next step. So color coding and using student-friendly feedback and symbols that reduce the language can help English language learners understand where they need to go next.
Delia: You mentioned rubrics and checklists. How do you use that with students? That’s something traditionally teachers have kept. How do you teach children to use those for themselves?
Dr. Pierce: Well, as I said earlier, there’s two categories of assessments, teacher-useful and student-friendly. So scoring rubrics that can be complicated to design and use can be useful for the teacher. For the students, when you want to translate this information to student-friendly language, it needs to be primarily put in the form of a checklist, and maybe not a 30 or 50-item checklist, but maybe a five-item checklist. And maybe you can convert it to a rating scale where they are A, B, C, or 1, 2, 3, or smiling face, whatever, frowning face on a checklist. But a range, so that the student, himself, is engaged in monitoring what he or she feels they have accomplished based on the learning in the classroom. And then what they do is they get a reality check from the teacher, who sits with them after having taught them how to monitor their own learning, sits with them and says, "Okay, you say that you feel that you’re able to recognize words beginning with an "F" or a "T", show me that you can do that." So the teacher confirms and verifies what the student has, himself or herself, said they can do.
Delia: Given what you just said, are you saying that teachers should share some expectations, or the information on the teacher's own expectations with the students?
Dr. Pierce: Oh, absolutely! It is no longer acceptable for a teacher to keep secret what the learning goals and objectives are in the classroom and how high the student must jump in order to get a particular grade, or pass a particular project. That’s no longer acceptable. In the world of assessment these days, it is a widely known that both parents and students, since they’re being held accountable for meeting the criteria for standardized tests, and statewide tests as well as at the classroom level. They need to be informed before they see any kind of test or assessment what the objectives will be for the learning period, for the grading period, and how well he or she has moved toward that. Because without that, without sharing expectations and criteria, then both parents and students are aiming at either a moving target or an invisible target, and nothing’s harder to hit than a moving target or an invisible target.
Delia: This sounds like a very rich and rewarding approach to teaching. I’m wondering, how much one-on-one time does this take with young children? How much one-on-one time does this take with older students?
Dr. Pierce: Lots of assessment, observation assessment, can be conducted while the students are working in small groups, or whole class. And the one-on-one time comes in when you need more specific diagnostic information on an individual who may not appear — who appears not to be making progress. So the one-on-one factor doesn’t have to be one-on-one with all 30 students or all 25 students, as long as you’re systematically keeping records of how the others are doing. And so this really talks about conducting a collaborative classroom where the teacher makes time for students to engage in cooperative learning activities, or individually structured activities, so that he or she does have that time, once a week, once a day to meet with individuals or small groups at a time with whom he or she needs to conduct individual diagnostic assessments.
Delia: Is there a way to draw parents into this process?
Dr. Pierce: Absolutely! Parents are such an important role of the assessment cycle. I’m glad you said it is a cycle.
Oh, that’s not something we usually talk about.
Delia: Tell us more.
Dr. Pierce: Parents are definitely part of the assessment cycle, especially when it comes to elementary-aged children. Because parents cannot only be useful as native language informants and as to the history of the child’s previous learning, literacy, and experiences, educational experiences, but parents can also help the child meet the goals. They can only help the child if they know what the goals are. If they know what the learning objectives are, if they know what the teacher’s expectations are, and if they know what the kinds of tasks are that the learner’s being engaged to engage in. It may even be that the parents can engage the learners, the students, at home in a family literacy hour where they’re actually working, even if it’s family literacy in the native language. Native language literacy led by the parents as role models has a tremendously positive effect on literacy in any other language.
Delia: Well, that’s a lot. Let’s summarize. What do educators, administrators, and policymakers need to keep in mind as they think about assessment for English language learners, and parents, too, it sounds like?
Dr. Pierce: I would say there’s at least three things they need to keep in mind. The first thing that comes to mind with No Child Left Behind and standardized tests being required now, and there’s higher consequences attached to them, I would say that one size does not fit all. One test cannot measure everyone’s growth toward specific objectives, especially if their language — their native language is not the same as the one on the test, or if they’ve had significantly different learning experiences. If they’ve not had learning experiences in U.S. schools that’s going to be problematic, so the first one is that different tests, just as we differentiate instruction at the classroom level we’ll need to differentiate assessment at statewide, national, and classroom levels. The second thing that needs to be taken into account is the role of parental involvement. Parents more than ever need to be involved in the understanding, the comprehending of the expectations for their students — for their children, and the consequences for achieving or not achieving particular goals. Parents also need to be engaged helping in the classroom setting, native language resources, parental liaisons, having community meetings, and so on. Parents can be one of your biggest resources. Finally, I think one of the most important things for me, as a teacher/educator is that we need state legislation. We need serious state legislation across the entire United States that requires teachers to acquire assessment literacy. Most states do not have a requirement for teachers getting a license to learn anything about conducting systematic approaches to assessment literacy for diagnosing students. Most states do not have that requirement. That needs to go hand in hand with school systems providing professional development opportunities for teachers to gather and get this kind of information that will allow them to put in place the kinds of classroom-based assessments we’ve been discussing.
Delia: Thank you, Dr. Lorraine Valdez Pierce. And thank you for watching. Don’t forget to browse the recommended readings for this topic. And let us know what you thought about this program by taking our survey, which you can find on the main web page for this webcast. This program is a part of a larger series of professional development webcasts. Please, visit our main web page for more information. And to find resources for teaching English language learners to read and information on how to reach out to their families visit our website, colorincolorado.org.
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