ELL Students Benefit from Formative Assessments

September 15, 2010

Gary Cook

Gary Cook

Classrooms across the country are welcoming an ever-growing number of students whose native language is not English.

Learning English is tough enough, especially so when you’re a student learning academic content at the same time.

Helping students meet academic goals while negotiating a new language challenges teachers, too. Each English language learner (ELL) has a unique set of abilities and educational experiences. At any given grade level, and in any given subject, their academic preparation differs, as does their familiarity with informal and academic English. To be of most assistance, teachers need to know how well each student is doing in any given area, at any moment.

The WIDA Consortium (World Class Design and Assessment) helps educators and administrators teach and monitor the progress of ELL students. Now supporting a consortium of 23 states, WIDA designs and helps implement curriculum and assessments for ELL students of all kinds, including those with learning disabilities.

One area of assessment—formative assessment—has recently grown in importance. Formative assessment occurs regularly during the school year and helps teachers and students monitor learning progress. Formative assessments help teachers identify where students are, and where they need to be, relative to learning goals. Teachers and students then address these gaps.

H Gary Cook directs the WIDA FLARE project. (The acronym stands for Formative Language Assessment Records for ELLs.) FLARE focuses specifically on academic English language literacy for ELLs in secondary school. Cook explains that formative assessment is cyclical and ongoing. It involves gathering, interpreting, and evaluating information, and taking action based on these results. In other words, formative assessment goes beyond mere documentation of performance. FLARE helps teachers measure student progress as they develop the essential language needed for success in academic classes at middle and high school.

In field testing and development sites teachers and students use FLARE’s Language Learning Targets to set goals for language instruction and learning. The learning progressions span four academic disciplines: English-language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies. These progressions are framed by linguistic components including language functions, vocabulary, grammar, and language discourse. The heart of the model (see diagram) is its assessments: student self-assessments, an assessment toolbox for teachers, and benchmark tests.

This field testing is taking place in 3 school districts: Garden Grove (Calif.) Unified School District; Chicago Public Schools; and Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) Public Schools. Because each district has a unique ELL context, Cook says, each adds to our understanding of how to most effectively implement formative assessments.
Prior to 2002, few ELL assessments were created from state-adopted English language proficiency standards. Now, all states have assessments that relate in some way to such standards, Cook says. And substantial progress has been made in developing large-scale ELL summative assessments. Yet formative assessments have received little attention until now.

Cook says that in the current educational context, a useful formative assessment system must integrate itself with mandated state and district academic standards and assessments. It’s important to investigate how teachers can meet the accountability requirements, but at the same time, to be able to assess for formative purposes in the classroom.

As development of formative assessment systems continues, Cook says, attention must be paid to the need for deep and sustained professional development and support.

FLARE is funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Adapted from an article originally appearing in the Summer 2010 issue of AccELLerate, the newsletter of the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition