Assessment is a multi-faceted issue that has been the focus of considerable attention in education over the past decades. Before discussing assessment as it directly pertains to ESL students, it is helpful to offer a brief overview of its major aspects.
In essence, assessment is of three types: initial, formative and summative.
Other ways of categorizing assessment which overlap with the three categories discussed above include: formal / informal, alternative, authentic, peer and self-assessment.
Feedback is an integral part of the assessment process. Indeed, many types of formative assessment can themselves be regarded as feedback. Robust research† tells us that feedback is essential to development, provided that it is timely, relevant and action-oriented.
Summative feedback usually involves grading according to a set of criteria determined by the teacher. The fair grading of ESL students is a tricky issue.
Note: The discussion here will be limited to the assessments that teachers create for their own groups of students. This excludes all standardized testing and assessments set by outside authorities such as examination boards.
In view of the complex, multi-faceted nature of assessment in general, it is not surprising that there is no single or simple solution to the thorny question of how to fairly and reliably assess the subject knowledge, understanding and skills of ESL students in content classrooms. Indeed, the issue is even more complicated due to an additional facet or variable, namely the level of English proficiency of the ESL student.
Nevertheless, it is hoped that the comments and suggestions offered below will make it possible for mainstream teachers to create assessment that are fair and reliable measures of the content knowledge and skills of the ESL students in their classes at all stages of their English language development.
The fundamental problem is determining how students can demonstrate knowledge and understanding when their English is limited. This limited English makes both language input and language output difficult.
Input is the language that students must understand in order to undertake the assessment task (in other words, the written or oral instructions given by the teacher). Output is the language that students must produce in fulfilment of the task requirements.
The solution to the problem in respect of any given assessment may be one or a combination of three practices: provision of an alternative task, modification of the task, and offering various other accommodations.
Providing ESL students with a different way to demonstrate knowledge and skills (i.e. alternative assessment) is often the only sensible choice for those with low English proficiency. Having them do the same assessment as the native speakers in the class can be a demoralising experience - particularly if they understand the content but do not yet have the English to articulate this understanding.
There are numerous types of alternative assessment which reduce or even remove the language input and output demands of a task. These including nonverbal strategies such as pointing or drawing and role plays, graphic organizers and sentence starts.
Portfolios, containing a variety of different work products (such as writing samples, labelled diagrams or pictures, checklists, audio files), are a good way for students to demonstrate their developing knowledge and skills. They can be used as an alternative to summative assessments based on final written examinations.
Here is a brief overview of alternative assessments for ESL students.
In many cases, particularly for students who are more proficient in English, teachers may wish all students to do the same written assessment. This is where modifications of the language input have a part to play. There are several aspects of written language that can make it more difficult for ESL students to quickly understand what the assessment task requires of them. Modifying the language of the task can be done without changing its content or cognitive challenge. This makes for a test that is fair for ESL students.
Elsewhere on this site is detailed advice on identifying and modifying aspects of written language input that are likely to cause difficulty: Preparing ESL-friendly worksheets and tests.
As for output, ESL students can be given a version of the test that contains sentence starts or sentence frames. This reduces the amount of English that they must produce themselves.
The third way to ensure a fair test for ESL students is to offer them various accommodations. The most obvious and important of these is to allow them more time to complete the assessment. Other strategies include:
Some of these accommodations may be considered appropriate for all students, not just those with limited English proficiency.
Clearly, subject teachers have various ways of giving ESL students appropriate feedback about their developing subject knowledge and skills. The question arises, however, as to the feedback they should be giving about language errors. There are suggested answers elsewhere on this site: grammar, spelling, pronunciation.
Determining a fair grade for a piece of work done by an ESL student is a complex matter. Theoretically, it is desirable if the grade for individual students at their various levels of English proficiency is based on what they can do, rather than what they can't. But in practice it is often difficult to achieve consistency, fairness and transparency for all students. This site has a brief answer to the question How should I grade my ESL students?, which might work for some teachers in some assessment contexts
It is a good idea to consult with the student's ESL teacher when planning to give an important assessment. He or she can offer advice on the language demands of the assessment tasks and suggest appropriate accommodations based on the language proficiency of the student.
ESL teachers at FIS are always happy to undertake the linguistic modifications that are necessary to make for a more manageable task - or even to write an alternative assessment so that the student has the best chance to demonstrate understanding and skills.
Following are links to external websites that discuss the main issues concerning the assessment of ESL students, and suggest various strategies:
† For research on feedback, see this article co-authored by John Hattie, of Visible Learning fame: The Power of Feedback.