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Strategies for Grading ELLs in Content Classes

The new question-of-the-week is:

How do you handle grading for English-language learners in mainstream content classes?


Grading can be one of the banes of a teacher's existence. An added complication can be when an English-language learner is in a "mainstream" content-subject class—what are the best ways a teacher can handle this situation in an equitable way?

Today, Margo Gottlieb, Kristin Spears, Becky Corr, Pamela Mesta, and Olga Reber offer their responses to this question. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Margo, Kristin, and Becky on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

You might also be interested in The Best Resources on "Differentiated Grading" for English-Language Learners.

Grading shouldn't be "formulaic"

Co-founder and lead developer of WIDA, Margo Gottlieb is an expert in curriculum, instruction, and assessment of language-learners, having started her career as a teacher and currently working with teachers and school leaders across the United States and internationally. Margo is author/co-author of more than a half dozen professional books, including Breaking Down the Wall: Essential Shifts for English Learners' Success (Corwin, 2019):

Grading is an institutional tradition, yet how do you describe it? Is it a metric, as in a number or letter? If so, how much better is a B than a C, or how much more has been learned if your students score 81 (a B) versus 79 (a C)? Does grading represent standards-referenced performance? If so, what is the difference in the designations "making progress" v. "approaching" in representing students' knowledge of grade-level content?

In either instance, what does "grading" mean for English-language learners (ELLs) whose knowledge base is in a language other than the one in which instruction and assessment are imparted? What does it mean for ELLs participating in dual-language programs where teachers must conform to reporting achievement only in English? How can we maximize equity of grading practices for the heterogeneous mix of ELLs and ELLs with Individualized Education Programs in mainstream content classrooms?

Grading for ELLs, as for all students, should not be formulaic, it shouldn't be rigid, it shouldn't be a mystery or a surprise. Grading shouldn't be a norm-referenced event where students are ranked or compared with their peers. In essence, grading should be part of ongoing assessment as and for learning—based on student self-assessment and negotiation between teachers and students—that is integral to teaching and learning. As an outgrowth of conversations between multilingual learners and their teachers, grading should stem from mutually agreed upon decisions about students' demonstration of learning.

Admittedly, the linguistic, cultural, and personal histories of ELLs are unique; these distinct qualities should provide the context for teachers to begin their discussion with the students. Content teachers across disciplines have the responsibility of maximizing ELLs' opportunities to learn; to do so, they must: 1) provide a variety of scaffolds for ELLs to make meaning from oral and written text, 2) be strategic in inviting ELLs to interact with peers in one or more languages, 3) give ELLs choices in how to demonstrate learning through multimodalities (such as visually, orally, digitally, or in writing), and 4) listen to and invite student voice.

So, what can mainstream content teachers do when negotiating grades with their ELLs? Here are some practical ideas:

  • Co-create long-term goals for learning, such as for the semester, and short- to mid-range learning targets integrating language and content that take students' "funds of knowledge" and interests into account. An example learning target for a unit of learning on the birth of the U.S. in a middle school social studies class might be, "Students will argue (with claims, evidence, and reasoning) whether English or multiple languages should have prevailed in the U.S. post the American Revolution."

  • Co-construct criteria for success in student-friendly language for individual projects and long-term assignments. These expectations should convey clear outcomes, and students should be aware of how the criteria or descriptors will convert to grades. Have ELLs orally restate the criteria in English or paraphrase the criteria in their home language in their journals to serve as a reference guide.

  • Move from teacher modeling of grading practices and crafting of performance criteria at the beginning of the year to include their I DON'T KNOW WHAT "THEIR" REFERS TO HERE????application to samples of student work. Later in the year, gradually transition from student-teacher conversations to student-led conferences where ELLs show evidence and justification for meeting their learning goals.

  • Together, create a learning contract of joint decisions that answers the questions:
    • What evidence will reflect your learning, and how do you know it will meet the criteria for success?
    • Which modalities (visual, oral, written, digital) do you prefer to use to express your learning?
    • Which language(s) do you plan to use to explore, research, and analyze content?
    • What will be the contribution of student self-assessment to grading?

While language and content are often indistinguishable during instruction, when it comes time for grading, mainstream content teachers must consider ELLs' oral language and literacy in relation to their conceptual understanding. Through ongoing discussion between teachers and students, grading should become a transparent negotiated process in which ELLs are vested to do their best.

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Formative assessments

Kristin Spears is an ESOL coach and teacher in Spartanburg, S.C., District 6 where she helps plan and conduct ESOL professional development and collaborates with elementary teachers on how to best serve the ELs in their classrooms. In her teaching career, she has worked in various upstate S.C. schools with students in grades K-8:

Like so many other issues in education, grading ELLs is a tricky topic. There is no easy, one-size fits all answer. Why? Because like our native English speakers, each ELL is unique. So often, teachers ask, "How can I give him/her a grade? He/She just moved here! They can't even speak." They want their students to be exempt from this seemly unfair situation. Often, teachers aren't trained in how to proceed with these students, so they want to be exempt from their heart and head dilemmas of how to reach, teach, and grade their students.

But grading is not the underlying issue; it is giving the appropriate assessment to grade. How a teacher approaches assessing a nonspeaking newcomer in the 3rd grade is completely different from assessing an ELL that was born here. Assessing a newcomer with a strong foundation in their native language is different from assessing a newcomer with limited education.

High-stakes testing is unavoidable; therefore, ELLs should be exposed to the same format as these tests. However, they should not be the primary form of classroom assessments. When using these multiple-choice tests to prepare students, consider including these scaffolds based on each ELL's proficiency level: picture references, oral administration, and eliminating answer choices.

Formative assessments are more appropriate for ELL students, especially newcomers, and more informative for the teacher. In their book, New Frontiers in Formative Assessment, Noyce and Hickey define the use of formative assessments as "the process of monitoring student knowledge and understanding during instruction in order to give useful feedback and make timely changes in instruction to ensure maximal student growth." The key word in that definition is during. While summative assessments take time out of the instructional day, formative assessments are built into the daily or weekly routines of the classroom.

Some examples of formative assessments are: labeling and drawing models, completing graphic organizers, keeping a content journal or reading log, conducting an interview, rating scales, and ticket out the door. The amount of scaffolding needed on each assessment depends on a student's language-proficiency level. A newcomer may need to label a premade picture with a word bank or match pictures while intermediate students should draw and label their own diagram. A limited-English-proficient student might need sentence frames for their journal, while an intermediate student might just need a sentence starter. We want students to continue to move forward in their zone of proximal development. This is also known as productive struggle, pushing students to reach their fullest potential. Once a child has reached mastery with a particular scaffold, that scaffold is removed.

Another benefit of formative assessments is the immediate feedback teachers and students gain. Gottlieb, in her book Assessing English Language Learners: Bridges to Educational Equity, refers to this as assessment for learning. Assessment for learning gives teachers the data they need to make informed instructional decisions about how to proceed with content instruction. Does content need to be retaught? Are more language supports needed? Can a picture or diagram be used to help explain the content? Teachers use their expertise to continually monitor and adjust and then assess again. Over time, these formative assessments create a portfolio of student work that can be used for grades but, more importantly, can be used to document student gains and successes.

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Assessing content apart from language proficiency

Becky Corr is the president of EdSpark Consulting, which is dedicated to igniting partnerships for diverse learners through professional development, technical writing, and systems analysis. In her role as the English-language development team lead in the Douglas County school district in Colorado, she coaches, mentors, and supports teachers and facilitates family-engagement opportunities :

"English is a language, not a measure of intelligence."

- Unknown

Grades are a measure of a student's growth toward and mastery of intended outcomes and content standards. They are a form of feedback to students, parents, and other educators about a student's grasp of the content and standards. Students and parents take that feedback to heart. For students who are learning English, grades are an important source of feedback and pride.

When the classroom instruction and assessments align to what students can do according to their English proficiency, then grading becomes much easier. In the absence of instructional and assessment strategies for English-learners, students really struggle with learning the content, and grades can sometimes reflect that. Students and parents can really take that feedback to heart. Take, for instance, a student who made excellent grades when they were learning in their first language before they arrived in the United States. If they come to the U.S. and receive poor grades because the instruction they are receiving is not comprehensible or the assessment is a measure of their language rather than their content knowledge, they can start to question their identity as a good student as well as their intelligence.

English-learners have the dual challenge of learning language and content at the same time. They have to work at least twice as hard. When students are held to high expectations and receive the appropriate support for language, then mastering the content standards becomes possible. It is important to expect English-learners to master the content and communicate this expectation along with the assurance that they will be provided with language support.

When assessing English-learners, it is important to assess their growth toward and mastery of the content standards separate from language. In other words, the assessments must match what a student is able to do at their current proficiency level. Collaboration with the ESL teacher is helpful when it comes to assessment and throughout the teaching and learning cycle. If the instruction throughout the unit is not comprehensible to the student, then modifying an assessment or providing an alternative method of assessment will not be helpful. On the other hand, if collaboration between the ESL teacher and content teacher has been strong and students have benefited from comprehensible input, then providing an assessment that matches the proficiency level of the students is beneficial. Most states have a document similar to the WIDA Can-Do Descriptors or the NYSESLAT Performance Level Descriptions. If unsure of a student's English-proficiency level, collaborating with your ESL teacher will be helpful for putting into context what a student is able to do.

Students' identities—how they see themselves within the academic world—are influenced by the feedback they receive from teachers. When the content knowledge of English-learners is validly assessed separate from language proficiency, the result is powerfully affirming.

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"Four essential considerations"

Pamela Mesta's experience includes administration, ESOL, bilingual, elementary, early childhood, educational technology, professional development, and interpretation/translation. She currently works as an ESOL supervisor in a Maryland public school district and is also an adjunct college professor. Mesta has her B.A. in communications, her M.A. in education, and has done postgraduate work in ESOL, educational technology, and school administration. Her certifications include ESOL Pre-K-12, Elem/MS 1-6, Administrator I/II, and national-board certification in early childhood.

Olga Reber's experience includes ESOL, EFL, professional development, and interpretation/translation. She currently works as an ESOL resource teacher in a Maryland public school district and is also an adjunct college professor. Reber has her B.S. in secondary education/foreign language instruction, her M.A. in linguistics, and has done postgraduate work in educational technology. Her teacher certification is ESOL Pre-K-12.

Pamela Mesta and Olga Reber are also the authors of the book: The Classroom Teacher's Guide to Supporting English Language Learners :

Grading English-language learners (ELLs) can be a bit tricky if you haven't had much experience in this area. No worries! Here are four essential considerations to guide your practice:

  1. Connect with your ELL specialist! This person will be your best point of contact for where to begin with each of your ELLs. Remember, you are the master of your content, and he/she is the master of language development. Together, you can decide what linguistic and content modifications to the curriculum must be made, how language and content goals will be interconnected, and what expectations you both have for student progress.

  2. Get to know your learners! Take some time to get to know information about your ELLs. This includes details about their prior schooling experiences, cultural backgrounds, values, and interests. It is also important to research grading systems from their previous schools/countries and discuss these differences with your students. This will help to establish a clear understanding of your expectations. Do some research on the stages of language learning and find out what ELL levels your students are, based on recent language assessments conducted by your ELL specialist. Knowing what levels they are will help you to set reasonable, yet achievable expectations for learning. When an ELL is below grade level in content knowledge, establish a baseline of where they are performing and "grow" their content knowledge from there. If separate objectives have been set for the student, their achievement should be measured with alternate assessments based on those objectives.

  3. Match instruction to assessment! Teach students how to be learners first before teaching and assessing content. Modify assessments the same way you modify instruction based on your students' cultural backgrounds and linguistic levels. These modifications should be woven into all formative and summative assessments. The most important thing to remember is that grades should never be a direct reflection of language level, meaning that students should have the opportunity to do well regardless if they are newcomers or advanced ELLs. Oftentimes, this involves creating individualized, differentiated assessments. Provide clear rubrics for assessments and projects along with exemplars that can serve as models.

  4. Formatting is not universal! It is best not to assume ELLs are familiar with the assessment format you are using (multiple-choice tests, constructed-response items, etc.). It is best to have study guides (with answers) and review handouts that match not only the contents of the test but also the format so ELLs can practice both. These supports will also help your ELL specialist, as he/she may not be familiar with the content. Allow ample time for students to study the information once they have experienced it in the same format the test is going to be administered. In some cases, allow the use of notes. Visuals used in assessments should be also be the same ones used in notes, instructions, and handouts.

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Thanks to Margo, Kristin, Becky, Pamela, and Olga for their contributions!

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