1. Change your lenses!
Before ever giving a formal assessment, you should view that assessment through the eyes of your EL students. Ask yourself the following questions to gain some insight into your assessments.
- Are there complex syntactical structures that will confuse language learners? Think of how much we overthink those true/false questions that have a negative word in them. "If I say true, am I agreeing that it's true or not true? But it has the word not, or never, or none!" Those same questions can be very misleading for ELs because they're hyperfocused on the language and structure of the question instead of attending to the content. Also, other languages do not have the same "anti-double negative structure" that we have...in Spanish, it is actually correct to use two (or more) negative words in a single construction. (I digress...more on this to come in another post.)
- Is the vocabulary of the test the same as the vocabulary of instruction? I specifically recall a situation in working with one of my beginner EL students in which language was definitely the barrier to that student's success on the assessment. We had been studying the story The Day Eddie Met the Author, and we were discussing authors every day. However, the test question wanted to know about Eddie's experience with the writer. This student simply didn't know that a writer and an author were the same. Such a small detail seems negligible, but we should search our assessments (and reflect on our own instruction) to identify these inconsistencies and specifically teach our EL students this new vocabulary.
- Are there cultural biases that my student could be experiencing? Some EL students struggle with the content of a test because they haven't experienced the same opportunities that we may have had. For example, if a reading passage discusses a picnic, make sure that student has a strong understanding of what a picnic is and why you would choose to have one. It's possible they do not know this word and have no understanding of the purpose of a picnic! I recall another time when some of my students didn't understand what skunks and opossums were. Without an understanding of either animal, it was very difficult for them to contemplate which would be stinky or cause a greater uproar for fear of being sprayed. These are just two examples among many, but we need to be vigilant for these biases on tests.
Many well-meaning teachers run their assessments through Google Translate or copy a pre-prepared alternative language version of a test for an EL student. This is not always a help for students who have a language barrier. Some students have literacy in multiple languages, but many ELs do not. Just like we tend to only use academic vocabulary words in the school setting and not in our homes, our EL students' families often do the same thing. Therefore, their first language or home language vocabulary is primarily full of conversational and/or functional vocabulary. This can be intimidating for students who are not literate in their home language and can actually create animosity between ELs who speak the same language when some are literate and others aren't. It can create embarrassment if the student doesn't know how to communicate that he/she cannot read or write in the translated language. That's not to say that translations are not effective in the right circumstances, and I LOVE teaching vocabulary in multiple languages. (Again, I digress and will return to the importance of vocabulary in a later post.) Just make sure that you know what your individual students need and provide for them accordingly.
3. Consider alternative assessments!
One key to getting the most accurate assessment results for ELs is finding a way for them to successfully express their understanding of the content. Think about it...before you could read and write, you could speak and respond. Perhaps your vocabulary was limited, but that did not mean that your mind wasn't already creating and processing the world around you. Many students, especially older ELs, have a wealth of knowledge but cannot express it yet in English. Think about something you're an expert in...is it formative assessment? Is it cooperative learning? Is it behavior management? Alright, now explain that to me in the comments, but you can only do so in Chinese. Or Thai. Or Korean. Or German. It's difficult, right? But that doesn't mean you know nothing about it! Likewise with our students...our ELs know much more than they are able to express to us through written, or sometimes even spoken, word in English. So consider other ways that will allow them to focus on the CONTENT of the assessment and not the LANGUAGE. When they're trying to navigate the language and the content at the same time, students are more anxious and become easily frustrated. Find ways to help them communicate their ideas...instead of an extended response, use a diagram and have them label steps or vocabulary. (This could be with or without a word bank, depending on the language level of the EL.) Or you could use a sentence or paragraph frame and they could complete the response instead of having to answer the question and worry about structuring an appropriate paragraph. That's not to say that they should never be given the opportunity to learn these things...challenge them, allow them to explore their new language! But when it's time to assess, make sure - most of all - that they are comfortable with the task.
I hope that these points help you in planning and giving assessments to your English learners. I also have a little freebie for you! I have some accommodations labels that I use to document which accommodations my students receive on their assessments or on their classwork. It streamlines the documentation process, and my co-teachers LOVE them. I have a set for English learners here and a set for special education/IEP students here. Both files are editable, so you can "tweak" them for what works best for you. Here's an older blog post of mine you might want to check out too; I explain accommodations and these labels in more detail here.