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English-Language Learners Opinion

Assessment Strategies for English-Language Learners

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 18, 2021 12 min read
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This week’s new question-of-the-week is:

What are effective assessment strategies for multilingual learners?

Assessment is a key element of teaching—we need to know where our students are in the learning process, how effective our instructional strategies have been, and if there are additional challenges we need to be aware of as we plan future lessons and student support.

Assessments, however, cannot be used in a one-size-fits-all strategy.

Today, Margo Gottlieb, Vivian Micolta Simmons, Cindy Garcia, and Karen Nemeth, Ed.M., share strategies educators can use to effectively assess English-language learners. Margo, Vivian, and Cindy were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Maximizing ‘Linguistic and Cultural Equity’

Margo Gottlieb, WIDA co-founder and lead developer, introduces assessment as, for, and of learning in her 2016 book, Assessing English Language Learners: Bridges to Equity, and expands on the approaches in subsequent books, chapters, and articles. Her most current publication is Classroom Assessment in Multiple Languages: A Handbook for Teachers (Corwin, 2021):

When thinking about effective assessment strategies for multilingual learners, what if we switched our attention away from school or district scores generated from testing that leave “gaps” in student performance and revisit data through the lens of stakeholders? Let’s start with a series of questions about multilingual learners, our most important stakeholders, to help position their centrality in the assessment process and provide a context for interpreting assessment data.

  • What are the languages, cultures, and educational backgrounds of your multilingual learners?
  • To what extent does your language program leverage your multilingual learners’ languages and cultures in curriculum and instruction?
  • To what extent do your multilingual learners connect their personal interests and their home/community life to school?

The first step in planning classroom assessment is to determine its purpose. How might you prioritize the primary reasons for assessing multilingual learners in one or more languages?

  • Do you want to get a pulse on multilingual learners’ thinking, how they are feeling, and their self-reflection on learning? Being more inclusive of students’ views and encouraging student agency are features of assessment as learning.
  • Do you want to provide feedback to multilingual learners to move their learning forward? Acting on insight from the interaction between students and teachers during instruction reflects assessment for learning.
  • Do you want to contribute to programmatic or schoolwide accountability? Using student projects, performances, and products, along with uniform criteria for success formulated by teachers with input from students, are representations of assessment of learning.

Now that you have a purpose and a corresponding approach to assessment in mind, let’s explore their associated effective strategies.

Assessment as learning as a classroom practice is a student-driven activity that broadcasts multilingual learners’ voice, empowerment, and identity. Assessment as learning can occur face to face or online when multilingual learners interact with their peers in the language(s) of their choice to:

  • explore topics or issues of mutual interest
  • contribute to crafting classroom activities or tasks
  • engage in self- and peer assessment
  • pursue learning from their own perspectives
  • select preferred mode(s) of communication (e.g., oral, written, graphic, visual) for processing information and expressing learning.

Assessment for learning might begin with teacher and student conversations leading to collaboration in making mutually agreed upon learning goals. Both are keenly aware of where multilingual learners are in their learning that is anchored to grade-level academic content and language proficiency/development standards. In assessment for learning, multilingual learners interact with their teachers in English or their shared language(s) to:

  • co-construct criteria for success and types of acceptable evidence for their work
  • apply criteria for success to give criterion-referenced feedback
  • plan differentiated instruction for content and language learning
  • give feedback in real time to student performance or needs.

Assessment of learning at a classroom level is shaped by teachers, individually or as a department or grade-level team, with input from students. It represents what students have accomplished at the culmination of a period of instruction, such as a unit of learning. Assessment of learning is geared to determining student growth over time and centers on collaboration among teachers with support of school or district leaders to:

  • match evidence for assessment with learning targets
  • document extent of meeting standards for units of learning
  • share of learning for products, performances, or projects
  • guide student production of capstone projects or portfolios

Together, assessment as, for, and of learning offers a comprehensive system that optimizes opportunities for multilingual learners to participate as educators strive to maximize linguistic and cultural equity for their students.


‘Formal and Informal Assessments’

Vivian Micolta Simmons was born in Colombia and has been in the U.S. for seven years. She has been a teacher for 14 years and is currently working as a ESL/DLI lead teacher for the Iredell-Statesville schools in N.C:

When assessing my culturally and linguistically diverse students, I always like to think about my own experience as a language learner. We all function differently; we are all smart with certain dominant areas or language skills. For instance, I consider myself good at speaking and pronunciation, but writing is an area where I need extra help. That does not mean that I cannot produce in a second language. It only means that I need to polish specific language skills.

I like to rely on both formal and informal assessments and make my recommendations—to homeroom teachers and parents—based on the data I can gather from these instruments.

Listening and reading activities, writing prompts (that provide sentence starters), formal and informal conversations (my favorite), and role-plays are some of my preferred activities to assess my students.

Pop quizzes, games, note-sketching, prior knowledge questions, video recordings (like Flipgrid), and formal pretests and post-tests are all part of my assessment arsenal. You can pick and choose from a great selection of data-collection options. For sure, I loathe paper-pencil assessment as the only performance measurement (for children and adults). They do not show what we are all capable of in terms of language production.


Rubrics, Portfolios, & Conferences

Cindy Garcia has been a bilingual educator for 15 years and is currently a districtwide specialist for PK-6 bilingual/ESL mathematics. She is active on Twitter @CindyGarciaTX and on her blog:

When assessing multilingual learners, teachers have to keep in mind both content and language. Teachers also have to be focused about what they assess and academic-language development might not always be something they need to assess.

Rubrics can be an effective way to assess student understanding because there are multiple indicators that students are trying to meet. Rubrics are also a good tool for assessing multilingual learners because they provide a consistent criterion for grading when tasks or projects might be subjective. This criterion helps teachers ignore other factors and use only the criteria in the rubric to assess student learning. Instead of multiple-choice type of assessment where there is only one correct response, a rubric allows the teacher to pinpoint what the student is understanding and what the student has yet to master. A rubric has a rating scale that provides the teacher with a way to provide feedback for students that will help them think about their work, ask questions, seek clarification, and improve their work. Rubrics also help students take ownership of their learning, because they are able to use the rubric to evaluate their work before they submit it for grading.

Portfolios are another great way to assess multilingual learners because the teacher is able to see evidence of student work and learning for a longer period of time than an end-of-unit assessment. This allows the teacher to see if the students “got it” right away and have they been able to “keep it” for longer than the length of the unit of instruction. When compiling a student portfolio, there are usually multiple pieces of evidence or student work for each concept, standard, or topic. Student-work samples could be writing prompts, a project, multiple-choice test, etc. This means that student portfolios also show a clearer picture of how a student learns.

Another effective strategy to assess multilingual learners is student-teacher conferences. Conferring with students provides students the opportunity to explain and share what they have learned without the usual stress of completing a formal test. Conferring also allows the teacher to provide more authentic feedback because it’s real-time feedback that addresses student questions, wonderings, or misconceptions. Conferring makes it easier for the teacher to focus the conversation just on content, academic-language development, or another area. The goal of each conference can be focused on the precise needs of each student and provide the specific data that teachers need to plan for instruction.


‘Portfolio-Based Assessment’

Karen Nemeth, Ed.M., is an author, consultant, and advocate focusing on early-childhood education for ELLs/DLLs. She has leadership roles in NAEYC, NABE, and TESOL. She hosts a resource website, Language Castle:

Developmentally appropriate assessment strategies for young English-/dual-language learners do not focus on one-shot test scores. The truth is, 4- and 5-year-old children are just not that interested in displaying their knowledge on demand. Terms like portfolio, sampling, and multiple measures guide best practices for the early years.

Children who are developing multiple languages have separate language systems for each of their languages. They learn some content in one language and some content in the other language. Even if they seem very strong in English, they may not have English words for all of the knowledge they’ve developed in their other language(s).

It is important to provide all screening and assessment in both of their languages. Further, the bilingual brain does not function the same way as two monolingual brains. According to research, the best screening and assessment tools would be designed specifically for bilingual thinkers and would capture what they know and can do in both of their languages. These kinds of tools are not available with sufficient quality and in the variety of languages needed. Kindergarten-entry assessments and other district-mandated monolingual assessments are not very accurate for young children who are multilingual learners. The best approach is to gather data about a child’s skills and knowledge through a variety of measures over time. I like to say that, in the early years, assessment is not a score, it’s a folder. Scores might be in the folder along with lots of other information that teachers can use to chart a child’s progress and determine their learning needs.

The solution recommended by most experts is to practice portfolio-based assessment. Instead of focusing on a snapshot or numeric score, portfolios allow teachers to gather authentic evidence about what each child understands and talks about. Portfolio-assessment software is available with some curriculum models or as independent products. They may include prompts, benchmarks, and a variety of ways to enter data on an ongoing basis.

It is very important that teachers should be allowed to use phones or tablets to record language and activity at any time during the day. This is critical for multilingual learners because it is the most accurate way to fully capture what the children actually say when they are talking in a language that is unfamiliar to the teacher. It is also critical that teacher assistants who are bilingual must be carefully prepared to participate in the assessment process as they may be the only adults who have home-language interactions with some of the bilingual children.

Information obtained from families can be another important component of the assessment process. A teacher might not ask the parents of a 7th grader about how they are doing with algebra at home, but many preschool and kindergarten children show advances in language and learning at home that may not be evident in the classroom. For example, a shy English-learner may not participate in singing activities at school but the family might send a video of the child singing happily with sophisticated lyrics at home. Young children may not always perform on demand or in expected ways at school. Families can also provide cultural context and information about the young child’s interests that help the teacher scaffold learning for each individual child. Multiple measures over an array of activities and times of day will make it possible for young children to show more accurately what they know and can do—and what they are ready to do next.


Thanks to Margo, Vivian, Cindy, and Karen for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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