Practice Brief 33 -- Topics: Assessment Culture Equity

How to design assessments for emerging bilingual students

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Why It Matters To You
  • Teachers should use frequent formative assessments of different kinds to bridge students’ everyday and disciplinary language practices.
  • District Staff & PD Providers should support teachers to prioritize understanding the details of student thinking first and giving grades second.
  • School Leaders should advocate for more low-stakes assessments to (1) support instructional decisionmaking by teachers and (2) help students understand their learning process and progress.

What is the Issue?

Many students are marginalized in school because their everyday language is not recognized or supported. Referring to these students only as “English language learners” diminishes awareness of the rich linguistic resources they bring from their home languages. There are many powerful ways to support emerging bilingual students, including: (1) unpacking the specific language forms of science, (2) translating assessment prompts, (3) allowing students to respond in their home languages, and (4) helping educators better understand and build on what students know.



Reflection Questions

  • How can you support students to express their understanding using multiple modes of expression and even multiple languages in your classroom?
  • Have you considered pilot testing your assessments with emerging bilinguals before using them with others?

Things to Consider

Crafting Equitable Assessment Items

  • Have students write the same response multiple ways to develop attention to features of scientific language and their everyday language. Ask, “How could you explain ____________ to a younger student?” and “How could you explain ____________ to a scientist?”
  • Ask students to notice and think critically about the features of everyday and scientific language (i.e., particular varieties of language) afford the speaker.
  • Ask students to reflect on their learning and connect to personal and community interests.
  • Choose assessment scenarios that are relevant to or experienced by all students, especially international students who haven’t grown up in the U.S. Students’ reading comprehension also benefits when they have related experiences and background knowledge.
  • Emphasize multiple modes of expression of science concepts, such as drawing, sculpture, art, video, or photography. Self-documentation assessments are an excellent approach.
  • Ask your ELL department to support you in translating formative assessment questions for emerging bilinguals.
  • Take specific language issues into account. See table on the right.


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