Classroom-based assessment strategies for science teachers. Martha Castañeda and Nazan Bautista Despite the burgeoning numbers of English language

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1 Classroom-based assessment strategies for science teachers Martha Castañeda and Nazan Bautista Despite the burgeoning numbers of English language learners (ELLs) in our schools, many science teachers have little training in meeting their specialized needs. During the academic year, 4.7 million or 10% of students in U.S. schools were classified as ELLs (Boyle et al. 2010). By the year 2030, it is estimated that 40% of K 12 classrooms in the United States will contain nonnative English speakers with varying levels of proficiency (Thomas and Collier 2002). Teaching this growing number of ELLs poses a pressing new challenge for educators. Effective education of ELLs requires that teachers adapt instruction to meet the needs of this unique population of students (TESOL 2006). This is especially true for teachers of subjects requiring specialized vocabulary, such as science. Since the academic success of ELLs depends on effective instruction and assessment in the mainstream classroom, it is imperative that teachers have proven strategies for working with ELLs. In this article, we provide four classroom-based assessment strategies for science teachers. These strategies include tailoring assessment to ELLs language proficiency, making the 40

2 assessment tasks accessible, diversifying the ways in which ELLs can demonstrate content knowledge, and documenting student growth. Assessment To properly assess science content knowledge, teachers must learn how to evaluate ELLs based on their level of language proficiency. Though standardized tests are used to determine whether or not students have met state and national standards, these tests do not detect incremental growth in ELLs content learning; they cannot provide the kind of day-to-day feedback teachers need. Classroom-based assessment strategies help teachers make instructional decisions on a daily basis. They diagnose students strengths and weaknesses related to classroom instruction, and provide specific feedback to support students language and content learning. The following sections present four classroom-based assessment strategies for ELLs. Strategies 1. Tailor assessment to language proficiency Prior to assessing content, science teachers must establish or re-establish ELLs level of language proficiency. Teachers should acquaint themselves with the English-language pro- FIGURE 1 Differentiated science assessment: Lesson on the water cycle. Level 1: Starting Level 2: Emerging Level 3: Developing Level 4: Expanding Level 5: Bridging Listening Reading Speaking Writing Using a diagram depicting the water cycle, the English language learner (ELL) points out the location matches the word uses key vocabulary labels the diagram. of a process (e.g., (e.g., evaporation) to to describe the Show where evaporation the process on the process (e.g., liquid, occurs ). diagram. evaporation, gas). Using definitions of each process in the water cycle, the ELL listens to sentencelevel oral descriptions and matches these with the processes on the diagram. matches written sentences with the processes on the diagram. voices a one-sentence definition of the process. Using a sequence of the processes involved in the water cycle, the ELL listens to the paragraph and draws a representation of what he or she hears. reads the paragraph and demonstrates understanding via a visual representation or a retelling. summarizes the water cycle using his or her own words. writes a one-sentence definition of the process. creates a poster of the water cycle. Using a case-study reading in which a water cycle problem, such as pollution, is presented, the ELL listens to peers present their arguments supporting their stand on the water Using a debate format, the ELL listens to peers arguments and responds orally. reads the paragraphs, answers comprehension questions, and identifies the causes of the problem and their consequences in this particular case study. reads the problem statement regarding the water cycle to prepare for the debate. formulates arguments to support his or her formulates arguments to support his or her writes an action plan that addresses all areas of concern and presents this action plan to peers. writes a summary that justifies his or her March

3 ficiency standards developed by the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) organization. These standards specify five levels in which ELLs can demonstrate measurable language proficiency (TESOL 2006): starting, emerging, developing, expanding, and bridging (Figure 1, p. 41; see also Figure 1 in Part I of this series, p. 36). At the starting level, ELLs can react to language with frequently used words and memorized chunks of language; they can also communicate minimally to meet their social needs. At the emerging level of proficiency, they demonstrate further understanding and production, including the use of simple academic vocabulary. At the developing level, ELLs understand more complex speech and can comprehend some specialized academic vocabulary. The expanding level is evidenced by a well-developed degree of understanding, coupled with some difficulty in comprehending abstract academic content. Finally, at the bridging level, students have moved through the continm but still need some language support, guidance, and modification of instruction when working with academic language and concepts. (Note: See the complete PreK 12 English language proficiency standards document for more detail [TESOL 2006].) Although these five levels represent predictable patterns and identifiable stages of proficiency, teachers cannot assume that all ELLs will progress through this language continm at the same rate (Harper and de Jong 2004). This variation demonstrates another reason why classroom-based assessment specific to ELLs is a vital skill for teachers. TESOL (2006) states that ELLs are expected to demonstrate their language-proficiency levels in four domains: listening, reading, speaking, and writing. Listening and reading are receptive skills that require the learners active engagement. Speaking and writing are productive skills that FIGURE 2 Sample portfolio rubric for an English language learner (ELL) at Level 3. Does not meet criteria needs further work (1 point) Meets criteria minimal requirements (3 points) Exceeds criteria excellent (5 points) Portfolio content and artifacts The number and variety of artifacts included in the portfolio provide little or no evidence of student s performance. Artifacts are of poor quality. The number and variety of artifacts included in the portfolio provide some evidence of the student s overall performance. Artifacts are of good quality. The number and variety of artifacts included in the portfolio provide good evidence of the student s performance. Artifacts are of exceptional quality. Content development Artifacts provide little or no evidence that target learning objectives were achieved. The student has little or no understanding of the content. Artifacts provide evidence that some of target learning objectives were achieved. The student has some understanding of the content. Artifacts provide evidence that target learning objectives were achieved. The student has a good understanding of the content. Organization of the portfolio Portfolio is disorganized and lacks clarity. No connections are made between the artifacts. Portfolio is somewhat organized and artifacts are presented in a logical format. Connections between artifacts are somewhat clear. Portfolio is detailed, well organized, and creative. Connections between artifacts are clear. Language development (Level 3) Content is barely comprehensible. Student lists a variety of discrete sentences and uses some cohesive devices. Vocabulary use is inadequate, inaccurate, or too basic for this level. Content is somewhat comprehensible and requires some interpretation on the part of the audience. Students uses some paragraph-length discourse, a variety of cohesive devices, and adequate vocabulary, including academic vocabulary for this level of proficiency. Content is comprehensible and requires minimal interpretation on the part of the audience. Student uses paragraph-length discourse, a variety of cohesive devices, and vocabulary, including academic vocabulary and idiomatic expressions. 42

4 engage students in oral and written communication and expression. Effective communication requires a concurrent coordination of all four skills. For fair assessment of ELLs, science teachers must be aware of language proficiency. The manner in which ELLs demonstrate content understanding should be based on what they can do with the language. Figure 1 presents possible learning outcomes for a lesson on the water cycle. The outcomes are differentiated based on language-proficiency levels and organized based on the four domains of language development. 2. Make the assessment task accessible Teachers must understand that ELLs primary challenge in science classrooms is a lack of the language and vocabulary needed to understand and express the many nuances of content. Unless otherwise identified, ELLs cognitive abilities are on par with those of their native-speaking peers. Modifying for ELLs does not mean compromising or lowering the content of the lesson or the difficulty of the assessment task; it requires making the content or the task comprehensible and attainable. To fairly assess the science knowledge of ELLs, teachers need to modify the assessment instrument so that students can first discern the task and then subsequently demonstrate knowledge even when English proficiency is limited. ELLs must understand the language used in the assessment instrument; teachers should modify this language to match their proficiency. To accomplish this task, teachers can highlight key vocabulary; avoid reduced or embedded clauses and passive voice; and use shorter sentences, high-frequency words, and questions rather than sentence completions (Flaitz 2009). Further, even when limited by language, ELLs need the opportunity to demonstrate their content knowledge. This can be achieved by providing a word bank, allowing students to use pictures instead of words, converting true-or-false questions to yes-or-no questions, limiting choices, providing examples, and creating matching items (Flaitz 2009). It is important to understand that as ELLs develop language, they will make developmental errors. Consequently, it may be necessary to focus on content knowledge when grading, rather than spelling and grammar. When possible, modifications should be allowed during assessments. ELLs should take tests in a comfortable and familiar setting, be permitted to use a bilingual dictionary, be allowed additional time to complete a test, and Modifying for ELLs does not mean compromising or lowering the content of the lesson or the difficulty of the assessment task. have questions read aloud in English or in their na- tive language, depending on their proficiency level. 3. Diversify content knowledge demonstrations Teachers can diversify the manner in which ELLs demonstrate their content knowledge through the use of performance-based assessments. In these kinds of assessments, students demonstrate their understanding through a performance (e.g., labeling the processes of the water cycle) or by creating a product (e.g., drawing a concept map for the water cycle). For instance, to assess a Level 3 (i.e., developing) student s understanding of the water cycle, a teacher may ask the student to draw a representation of it or to summarize what he or she read or learned, using his or her own words. Moreover, as ELLs move through the languageproficiency levels, tasks should be adapted to continuously foster language development. For example, students with low language proficiency may be asked to demonstrate knowledge in less language-dependent ways through drawings, charts, and concept maps; students with high language proficiency may be asked to apply what they learned in new situations and to rely on increased language skills. For instance, a Level 1 (i.e., starting) student can participate in a debate about water pollution with appropriate planning and use of technology resources. Prior to the debate, the learner researches the topic online using her or his native language, uses emerging language to write statements that argue pros or cons of the issue, gathers images that represent or enhance each statement, and creates a PowerPoint presentation that combines the elements. In this manner, the Level 1 ELL can participate in the debate by presenting rather complex arguments with the assistance of simple, level-appropriate statements and visuals. A Level 5 (i.e., bridging) student, on the other hand, can verbally justify and defend his or her position on the same issue. In both cases, students demonstrate their content understanding and simultaneously develop their language skills. If constructed and used effectively, performance-based assessments can provide teachers with a more complete picture of student understanding and progress in the classroom. More important, having the opportunity to show their understanding in multiple ways helps build ELLs confidence in the science classroom. 4. Document student growth Portfolio assessments are an effective way to monitor and document an ELL s content and language development March

5 throughout the year. Teachers can systematically collect and preserve records of a variety of student work such as the examples presented in Figure 1 (p. 41) that reflect growth in content and language achievement. Portfolios should be used to gather evidence of students best efforts, rather than store all of their work. By documenting student performance over time, portfolios provide a more complete way to cross-check student progress compared with teachers using a one-time assessment. Portfolios can include samples of written student work (e.g., lab reports), drawings representing student science knowledge and proficiencies (e.g., a water cycle diagram), and audio or video recordings of oral work (e.g., presentations and debates). All of these provide evidence for student learning of content and language. Portfolios are a collection of student artifacts and do not provide a specific answer to a particular question. Therefore, teachers should set clear criteria for evaluating this type of comprehensive performance, which demonstrates growth in both language and content. The criteria must clearly communicate the expectations and tasks to ELLs and address both language and content development. For instance, artifacts should demonstrate advancement in the two productive skills namely speaking and writing and illustrate development in academic language. Moreover, the teacher should consider ELLs language-proficiency levels and set ambitious yet attainable language objectives. Criteria can be presented in the form of a rubric. Teachers should consider students content knowledge and language proficiency among their expectations and use these predetermined criteria to summarize students growth. Although the criteria that focus on content gain and portfolio organization should be comparable for both mainstream students and ELLs, criteria on language growth should only be used to document and provide evidence for ELLs language development. To be fair to ELLs, language growth should not be included in their overall portfolio assessment scores; the information should be used as a formative assessment to inform both the teacher and the student on the language progress. Figure 2 (p. 42) provides a sample portfolio rubric with a supplementary section for evaluating a Level 3 (i.e., developing) ELL. Portfolios also serve as a great self-assessment tool for students. They help students learn how to monitor their own learning and reflect on how well they are doing with regard to their teacher s goals. When students are expected to evaluate Closing the achievement gap between ELLs and native speakers requires effective classroom-based assessment strategies that help teachers and students monitor ELLs development in both language and content. themselves and view their input in the learning progress as meaningful, learning outcomes improve (Heritage 2007). It is important to note that teachers must first teach students what a self-assessment is and how it is conducted. Teachers should provide clear criteria that are differentiated based on the language-proficiency levels of students. For instance, Level 5 (i.e., bridging) students can be asked to write a reflection on their science knowledge growth, based on artifacts accumulated in their portfolios. Students with lower language proficiency may be asked to use visuals to share how they think they have improved their knowledge, based on the artifacts in their portfolios. Closing the gap Closing the achievement gap between ELLs and native speakers requires effective classroom-based assessment strategies that help teachers and students monitor ELLs development in both language and content. If implemented effectively, the strategies presented here and in Part I of this series can benefit both native and nonnative speakers of English alike. n Martha Castañeda is an assistant professor of foreign language education, and Nazan Bautista is an assistant professor of science education, both at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. References Boyle, A., J. Taylor, S. Hurlburt, and K. Soga Title III accountability: Behind the numbers. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/titleiii/behind-numbers.pdf Flaitz, J Assessment and English language learners. Workshop presented at Miami University, Oxford, OH. Harper, C., and E. de Jong Misconceptions about teaching English-language learners. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 48 (2): Heritage, M Formative assessment: What do teachers need to know and do? Phi Delta Kappan 89 (2): Teachers of English of Speakers of Other Languages (TES- OL) PreK 12 English language proficiency standards. Alexandria, VA: TESOL. Thomas, W.P., and V.P. Collier A national study of school effectiveness for language minority students long-term academic achievement. Santa Cruz, CA: Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence. cdlib.org/crede/finalrpts/1_1_final 44

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