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Assessing Content Area Understanding in ESL Students

Isabelle Hoag Gason

How do you know what your
students know? Are you sure they know
what you think they should know?
Teachers use classroom assessments to
document and map out their students'
understandings and competencies all the
Students who speak English at home often have trouble articulating new concepts and
sharing new information because it is hard to explain ideas that they have only just begun to
understand. Kindergarten students may not have the ability to explain that they spent math class
talking about number families, even and odd numbers or skip counting to 100. Middle school kids
might say, "Nothing," when prompted about what they learned that day, simply because they do not
yet own the language needed to tell mom that they spent history class discussing the political, social
and economic realities of the North and
the South in 1850's USA.
When it comes to measuring
what ESL students know about the
subject matter they are studying – apart
from how well they can or cannot
explain their understandings in English –
can be challenging. Use these three steps
to insure that the tests you give your
ESL students are accurate and effective
measures of their level of content area

Identify Standards, Benchmarks and Assessment format
After you have identified the content and language standards, think about what kinds of
responses you expect from students. What would be a fantastic response; a middle of the road
response; a less than adequate response?
Experienced teachers have years of data collected and stored which they can use to rate
student responses without really thinking about it. This is handy for making note of spontaneous
responses that epitomize, or describe details that could be documented to support a student’s
grades, or progress; or when the response alters the teacher’s appraisal of how that student is doing
in class.
However, it is not enough for teachers to just ‘sort of know’ when a student’s response is
low, average, or stellar. Effective teachers prepare and share descriptions of the gradations of quality
by which students’ work is measured. Rubrics, checklists and other scoring guides can be created for
large scale or frequently used assignments. For every performance of understanding that students
carry out, the teacher’s expectations should be public, visible and frequently referenced.
Assessments can be formal or informal, verbal or non-verbal, scored by the teacher, the
student, other students or other stakeholders.

Teachers Collect Effective Assessment Tools
Find Pre-made Assessments
Students who are just learning English may be able
to develop rich understandings of concepts in content areas
but they may not yet have the language needed to express
their understandings. They may need to draw a picture to

in math, or the anatomy of a cell in
biology. They may need
nonverbal or demonstration
type assessments rather than pencil and paper tests. This is why
teachers need to assess ESL students in different ways than they might
assess native English speakers.
There are many ESL teachers and content area teachers that
have been down this road before you. Why reinvent the wheel and
axle? You can always find assessments either from the text books,
other teachers at school, or online.

Adapt Existing Assessments
In many cases, classroom teachers have mountains of quizzes, assignments and tests that
they want to use again. The school or district may stipulate that teachers use tests right out of the
text book, or new teachers, who do not have piles of previous exams lying around, might need to
use pre-written assessments as a way to get started.
Whatever the situation, tests designed for native English
speakers simply will not yield accurate information about how well
students who are learning English comprehend the topic. Rather
than start from scratch, teachers might want to bend, change or
tweak class room assessments to make them useful with ESL
students as well.
Adapt assessments to provide a lot of support for lower
level students. Then gradually reduce the amount of support as the
student gains proficiency with English. There are many ways to scaffold assignments in order to
provide additional linguistic support for ESL students and yet be able to measure their subject area

Create Original Assessments
Teachers with a constructivist mindset think that students
must create their own mental models of topics and subject
matter. In fact, they call the process of building these cognitive
maps of reality 'learning.' Constructivists think that each person
must recreate academic concepts for themselves. Of course,
living after Rene Descartes makes learning calculus easier for
the rest of us. However, every learner is 'starting from scratch'
when it comes to making their personal mental representation
of topics from addition to calculus, electrons to cloud nebulae and so on.
When master teachers want to discover what their students know, they design specific tools
to collect the exact data needed in order to assess students' progress.
Yes, they may adapt assessments they have used in the past to fit
their current learners. Certainly, they are always looking for new ideas
and new ways to assess learning.
Puzzling through the creation of an effective assessment tool
is one of the arts at which master teachers excel. Additionally, the
process of creating assessments teaches teachers about: the students
they are assessing, the learning goals they set for students, and the
salient features - the essence of - the content being taught.

Assess the Tests, then the Students
After you have made a first draft of
your assessment, let some students you
know well take the test to see if it works the
way you thought it would. This will help
you tweak, jiggle and or rewrite the test to
improve its reliability. Every time you give
the test you should think about how well
the results match with what you already
know about your students.
A collection of measurements
clustered together give a more accurate
view of a student's level of understanding
than a single datum point on its own.
Continue to find, adapt and create
assessments to measure your students'
understandings; all the while being mindful
of the limits of each type of assessment
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