Focusing Formative Assessment on the Needs of English Language Learners

How can formative assessment enhance the teaching and learning of English language learner (ELL) students? What, if anything, from our experience with summative assessment of ELL students can inform effective formative assessment practices? And finally, what are the opportunities and challenges inherent in integrating formative assessment into instruction for ELL students in this era of Common Core and other next generation standards? This paper addresses these questions. In addition, the authors, all former or current WestEd researchers, argue that in order to use formative assessment effectively in classrooms with ELL students, teachers must attend simultaneously to the students’ needs both in learning content and skills, as well as in developing the English required to express their learning. 

Content Comments 

This resource offers a research-based definition for use of formative assessment with ELL students and a set of principles for application at multiple levels of the educational system. Although the document is not specific to the NGSS, it does emphasize the necessary changes in the alignment of instruction and assessment under the new CCSS. It has the potential for transferability and application to the NGSS and offers key strategic approaches and models for the implementation of effective ELL-focused formative assessment practices.  Readers will find key crossover ideas on implementation of formative assessment of English learners for application in the context of NGSS.

The crossover ideas resonate with the concepts of opportunity to learn, of monitoring student understanding, and use of formative assessment as a tool to promote student learning via a variety of tasks that elicit evidence of learning. Similarly, the NGSS have three dimensions that promote a variety of opportunities and real-world practices to engage students in STEM learning. The dimensions are not the process of learning, but the kind of thinking and understanding that science education should foster. Also, it focuses on changes to the role of the teacher, placing the student at the center of the learning experience, using learning progressions to anchor goals, planning articulation and monitoring of learning as key ideas sharing the vision of the NGSS. The presented concept of teaching language as an active learning process takes into consideration: the multidisciplinary and system's thinking nature of STEM; promoting teaching within a meaningful context, yet with rigorous content and academic language use that includes discursive, grammatical, and lexical features; and disciplinary epistemologies with structured supports as key elements for the academic success of ELL students. Consequently, "teaching and learning do not treat language as an autonomous system but, rather, as a system nested within a larger set of social systems.” Parallel to these key ideas, the NGSS Appendix D offers vignettes and specific strategies for ELL students' engagement in rich, rigorous academic content that reflects the expectations for grade levels.

This paper systematically reviews implications of effective ELL instruction for formative assessment and the effectiveness of assessments for ELLs. The details reveal the lack of research that exists on ELL formative assessment, while ample large-scale assessment studies and their impact on ELLs do inform the field and classroom practices. This invites the reader to consider these factors along with the specific ‘assessment boundaries’ that NGSS provides in the practice of developing classroom assessments in STEM for use with ELL populations. According to the authors, formative assessment of ELLs requires a coherent implementation of effective scaffolds for academic language development. Similarly, the NGSS call for coherence in their implementation.

The authors summarize that developing the deep level of teacher expertise needed to deliver effective formative assessment requires a school to create a system of support and to provide continual teacher professional learning practice. Similarly, implementation of the NGSS requires these approaches. Consequently, the pivotal role that formative assessment plays in ELL instruction makes this resource very informative for educators, and it makes its transference and crossover for application with the NGSS equally valuable.