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Assessment & Reflection With ELLs—And All Students

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This excerpt from our upcoming book, The ESL/ELL Teacher's Survival Guide, highlights student reflection as a tool for assessing the learning of English-language learners. However, we've found these principles and practical strategies to be effective with ALL our students.

Assessment: Key Principles

Assessment can be frustrating for teachers—especially implementing the mandated assessments that were created without teachers' input. We know how it feels to bombard students with multiple assessments that aren't directly connected to their learning and don't yield timely or valuable information on their progress. Before we dive into self-reflection strategies, we want to share some general principles that have helped us to assess ELLs (and all students) in equitable, effective, and meaningful ways:

Be data-informed, not data-driven. When schools are data-informed, assessment data helps them to make thoughtful decisions that directly benefit students.

When schools are data-driven, they may make decisions that do not help students. For example, a data-driven school might assign students who are "borderline" between algebra and a higher level of math to algebra, so that they do well on the algebra state test. English teachers might focus a lot of energy on teaching a strand that is heavily represented in tests, even if it will not help the student become a lifelong reader.

In other words, the data-driven school may tend to focus on its institutional self-interest—not what's best for the students. However, in schools that are data-informed, test results are just one more piece of information that can be helpful in shaping instruction. Data-informed teachers will use assessment data to reflect on their practice, identify adjustments, and seek out the resources and knowledge necessary to make those changes.

Assess knowledge and language separately. Many ELLs may not be able to fully demonstrate what they know and what they can do because of their limited levels of proficiency in English. It is not effective to measure a student’s content knowledge by using an assessment that requires language beyond his or her level of proficiency. For example, asking beginning-level students to demonstrate their knowledge of a plant's life cycle by writing an essay is more a test of their English skills than of their content knowledge.

Researchers have recommended that teachers implement test modifications for their ELLs, such as simplifying test questions or allowing the use of bilingual dictionaries. This can help "to prevent language limitations from unnecessarily sacrificing ELLs' test performance."

Assess students according to their current proficiency level. It's important to get to know your students, identify their academic strengths and challenges, and know their current levels of English proficiency in speaking, reading, and writing. Having this information allows teachers to instruct and assess students according to their current level of English proficiency—not by the results of the last standardized test they took.

Involve students in assessment. Involving students in the assessment process can be powerful, resulting in increased motivation and learning. When students are asked to evaluate their own progress, they feel more ownership of the learning process and are better able to identify specific learning goals for themselves. Research by Gavin Brown and Gerrit Hirschfeld suggests that "when students are expected to evaluate themselves and when they view their input in the learning progress as meaningful, their self-assessment can be very helpful, if not integral, to their learning."

Student Reflection

Robert Marzano, an education researcher, calls reflection "the final step in a comprehensive approach to actively processing information." We believe student reflections can be useful formative assessments.

We recommend including a short (five to seven minutes or so) reflection activity, usually a "think-write-pair-share," at the end of class two or three times a week. Depending on the English level of the class, teachers may want to provide sentence starters that students can use as they answer the questions.

It's useful to collect these in a folder or notebook for monthly, bimonthly, or quarterly review. We've identified five different types of brief reflection activities and recommend that teachers mix up these strategies:

Summarize. A wealth of research documents the effectiveness of having students summarize their learning. Consider using one of these summarizing prompts:

• What are two things you learned today?

• What is the most interesting thing you learned today?

• What do you know now that you didn't know before today?

• What will you tell your parents tonight if they ask what you learned?

• Draw something that represents the most important thing you learned today or that summarizes the day. Please write a short description.

Self-assess. Marzano recommends students share how well they think they did in class and what they believe they could have done better. By asking students to review what they did that helped them learn (and what they did that was not particularly effective), teachers can assist students in developing a stronger sense of self-efficacy. Here are a few more questions students can answer:

• What did you do that helped you the most today to learn English?

• What did you do to help yourself understand something when you were not clear?

• What, if anything, do you think you need more help in understanding?

• What, if anything, are you having difficulty doing?

Assess the class and teacher. Asking students to share their perspectives on class activities and the teacher's style can provide great insights. This activity is best done anonymously to ensure candid responses. Questions can include:

• What was your favorite class activity today, and why did you like it?

• What was your least favorite class activity today, and why was it your least favorite?

• Was the pace of this class too slow, too fast, or just right?

Spotlight on ELL Assessment and Teaching

Establish relevance. Some studies have shown that higher achievement is linked to activities that highlight relevance, such as asking students to write a few sentences explaining how they can specifically apply what they learned to their lives. In an ESL class, for example, students might write, "I will be able to ask someone for directions" or "I can fill out a job application," and in addition to refreshing their memory, they might feel more encouraged to actually do these things.

Demonstrate higher-order thinking. A Taxonomy of Student Reflection was developed by educator Peter Pappas. In it, he applies the Revised Bloom's Taxonomy to critical reflection. He recommends looking at student self-reflection through this lens, with higher-order questions appearing at the top:

• Creating: What should I do next?

• Evaluating: How well did I do?

• Analyzing: Do I see any patterns in what I did?

• Understanding: What was important about it?

• Remembering: What did I do?

Some of these questions obviously also connect to the previous reflection ideas. After students become more experienced in self-reflection, and as their English levels advance, teachers may want to start framing the reflection questions in the context of this taxonomy. In this way, students will become more aware of the strategy behind self-reflection, and learn more about the Revised Bloom's Taxonomy, which they will encounter throughout their academic career.

Obviously, student self-reflection is just one of many assessment strategies that can be used with students. However, we would suggest that—done right—it is "first among equals."

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