Practical Ideas on Alternative Assessment for ESL Students
Author: Jo-Ellen Tannenbaum
Many educators have come to recognize that alternative assessments are an important means of gaining a dynamic picture of students' academic and linguistic development. "Alternative assessment refers to procedures and techniques which can be used within the context of instruction and can be easily incorporated into the daily activities of the school or classroom" (Hamayan, 1995, p. 213). It is particularly useful with English as a second language students because it employs strategies that ask students to show what they can do. In contrast to traditional testing, "students are evaluated on what they integrate and produce rather than on what they are able to recall and reproduce" (Huerta-Macias, 1995, p. 9). Although there is no single definition of alternative assessment, the main goal is to "gather evidence about how students are approaching, processing, and completing real-life tasks in a particular domain" (Huerta-Macias, 1995, p. 9). Alternative assessments generally meet the following criteria:
- Focus is on documenting individual student growth over time, rather than comparing students with one another.
- Emphasis is on students' strengths (what they know), rather than weaknesses (what they don't know).
- Consideration is given to the learning styles, language proficiencies, cultural and educational backgrounds, and grade levels of students.
Alternative assessment includes a variety of measures that can be adapted for different situations. This Digest provides examples of measures that are well suited for assessing ESL students.
Table of Contents
"Physical Demonstration." To express academic concepts without speech, students can point or use other gestures. They can also be asked to perform hands-on tasks or to act out vocabulary, concepts, or events. As a comprehension check in a unit on Native Americans, for example, teachers can ask students to respond with thumbs up, thumbs down, or other nonverbal signs to true or false statements or to indicate whether the teacher has grouped illustrations (of homes, food, environment, clothing, etc.) under the correct tribe name. The teacher can use a checklist to record student responses over time.
"Pictorial Products." To elicit content knowledge without requiring students to speak or write, teachers can ask students to produce and ,manipulate drawings, dioramas, models, graphs, and charts. When studying Colonial America, for example, teachers can give students a map of the colonies and labels with the names of the colonies. Students can then attempt to place the labels in the appropriate locations. This labeling activity can be used across the curriculum with diagrams, webs, and illustrations.
To culminate a unit on butterflies, teachers can ask beginning ESL students to illustrate, rather than explain, the life cycle of butterflies. Students can point to different parts of a butterfly on their own drawing or on a diagram as an assessment of vocabulary retention. Pictorial journals can be kept during the unit to record observations of the butterflies in the classroom or to illustrate comprehension of classroom material about types of butterflies, their habitats, and their characteristics.
Many teachers have success using K-W-L charts (what I know/what I want to know/what I've learned) to begin and end a unit of study, particularly in social studies and science. Before the unit, this strategy enables teachers to gain an awareness of students' background knowledge and interests. Afterward, it helps teachers assess the content material learned. K-W-L charts can be developed as a class activity or on an individual basis. For students with limited English proficiency, the chart can be completed in the first language or with illustrations.
Sample K-W-L Chart
- Lincoln was important.
- His face is on a penny.
- He's dead now.
- I think Lincoln was a President.
- He was a tall person.
- Why is Lincoln famous?
- Was he a good President?
- Why is he on a penny?
- Did he have a family?
- How did he die?
- Lincoln was President of the U.S.
- He was the 16th President.
- There was a war in America when Lincoln was President.
- He let the slaves go free.
- Two of his sons died while he was still alive.
Before a unit of study, teachers can have students fill in the K and W columns by asking them what they know about the topic and what they would like to know by the end of the unit. This helps to keep students focused and interested during the unit and gives them a sense of accomplishment when they fill in the L column following the unit and realize that they have learned something.
Performance-based assessments include interviews, oral reports, role plays, describing, explaining, summarizing, retelling, paraphrasing stories or text material, and so on. Oral assessments should be conducted on an ongoing basis to monitor comprehension and thinking skills.
When conducting interviews in English with students in the early stages of language development to determine English proficiency and content knowledge, teachers are advised to use visual cues as much as possible and allow for a minimal amount of English in the responses. Pierce and O'Malley (1992) suggest having students choose one or two pictures they would like to talk about and leading the students by asking questions, especially ones that elicit the use of academic language (comparing, explaining, describing, analyzing, hypothesizing, etc.) and vocabulary pertinent to the topic.
Role plays can be used across the curriculum with all grade levels and with any number of people. For example, a teacher can take on the role of a character who knows less than the students about a particular subject area. Students are motivated to convey facts or information prompted by questions from the character. This is a fun-filled way for a teacher to conduct informal assessments of students' knowledge in any subject (Kelner, 1993).
Teachers can also ask students to use role play to express mathematical concepts. For example, a group of students can become a numerator, a denominator, a fraction line, a proper fraction, an improper fraction, and an equivalent fraction. Speaking in the first person, students can introduce themselves and their functions in relationship to one another (Kelner, 1993). Role plays can also be used in science to demonstrate concepts such as the life cycle.
In addition, role plays can serve as an alternative to traditional book reports. Students can transform themselves into a character or object from the book (Kelner, 1993). For example, a student might become Christopher Columbus, one of his sailors, or a mouse on the ship, and tell the story from that character's point of view. The other students can write interview questions to pose to the various characters.
Some of the oral and written products useful for assessing ESL students' progress are content area thinking and learning logs, reading response logs, writing assignments (both structured and creative), dialogue journals, and audio or video cassettes.
"Content area logs" are designed to encourage the use of metacognitive strategies when students read expository text. Entries can be made on a form with these two headings: What I Understood/What I Didn't Understand (ideas or vocabulary).
"Reading response logs" are used for students' written responses or reactions to a piece of literature. Students may respond to questions--some generic, some specific to the literature--that encourage critical thinking, or they may copy a brief text on one side of the page and write their reflections on the text on the other side.
Beginning ESL students often experience success when an expository "writing assignment" is controlled or structured. The teacher can guide students through a pre-writing stage, which includes discussion, brainstorming, webbing, outlining, and so on. The results of pre-writing, as well as the independently written product, can be assessed.
Student writing is often motivated by content themes. Narrative stories from characters' perspectives (e.g., a sailor accompanying Christopher Columbus, an Indian who met the Pilgrims, a drop of water in the water cycle, etc.) would be valuable inclusions in a student's writing portfolio.
"Dialogue journals" provide a means of interactive, ongoing correspondence between students and teachers. Students determine the choice of topics and participate at their level of English language proficiency. Beginners can draw pictures that can be labeled by the teacher.
"Audio and video cassettes" can be made of student oral readings, presentations, dramatics, interviews, or conferences (with teacher or peers).
Portfolios are used to collect samples of student work over time to track student development. Tierney, Carter, and Desai (1991) suggest that, among other things, teachers do the following: maintain anecdotal records from their reviews of portfolios and from regularly scheduled conferences with students about the work in their portfolios; keep checklists that link portfolio work with criteria that they consider integral to the type of work being collected; and devise continua of descriptors to plot student achievement. Whatever methods teachers choose, they should reflect with students on their work, to develop students' ability to critique their own progress.
The following types of materials can be included in a portfolio:
- Audio- and videotaped recordings of readings or oral presentations.
- Writing samples such as dialogue journal entries, book reports, writing assignments (drafts or final copies), reading log entries, or other writing projects.
- Art work such as pictures or drawings, and graphs and charts.
- Conference or interview notes and anecdotal records.
- Checklists (by teacher, peers, or student).
- Tests and quizzes.
To gain multiple perspectives on students' academic development, it is important for teachers to include more than one type of material in the portfolio.
Alternative assessment holds great promise for ESL students. Although the challenge to modify existing methods of assessment and to develop new approaches is not an easy one, the benefits for both teachers and students are great. The ideas and models presented here are intended to be adaptable, practical, and realistic for teachers who are dedicated to creating meaningful and effective assessment experiences for ESL students.
Hamayan, E.V. (1995). Approaches to alternative assessment. "Annual Review of Applied Linguistics," 15, 212-226.
Huerta-Macias, A. (1995). Alternative assessment: Responses to commonly asked questions. "TESOL Journal," 5, 8-10.
Kelner, L.B. (1993). "The creative classroom: A guide for using creative drama in the classroom, preK-6. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Pierce, L.V., & O'Malley, J.M. (1992)."Performance and portfolio assessment for language minority students. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.
Tierney, R.J., Carter, M.A., & Desai, L.E. (1991). "Portfolio assessment in the reading-writing classroom." Norwood, MA: Christopher Gordon.
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