Why is Formative Assessment so Important for English Language Learners?

One of my personal professional goals this year is to more effectively (read: quickly and consistently) use formative assessments to better guide my instruction.

Formative assessments, for those of you non-educator types who have somehow (???) stumbled onto this site, are all those little things you make students that help you answer the question “Are they actually getting this?”

Gone are the days (supposedly) where a teacher bestowed knowledge upon his/her students, and if they got it, they got it. In the 21st century (supposedly), teachers frequently check in with students ensuring that they are truly getting it. Nowadays, we (supposedly) don’t assess students until we’re sure they’re at a level at which they could possibly demonstrate mastery.

Did I say supposedly? I feel like I said supposedly a bunch.

In daily practice, it’s more difficult than it seems. There are so many questions that need answering. What happens to a student who demonstrates mastery on the first day?

What do you do when half of your students demonstrate mastery and the other half aren’t quite close?

Or when just one student has yet to show mastery?

Or when a student has consistently shown that they’re getting it, but tanks it on the big, scary, summative test?

Or when a student is just not putting in any effort?

Or when you’ve spent a month on a topic and a huge chunk of the class isn’t getting it?

Or… Or… Or…

I don’t claim to have answers to any of these questions. Much more capable and intelligent people than I have written entire books on the topic. What I do know, if only from experience, is that for ELLs, frequent and accurate formative assessments are an urgent necessity.

My students, if I may speak bluntly, are great at faking it. They are, for the most part, average kids… and your average adolescent is pretty good at trying to fit in.

Your average adolescent, though, isn’t learning a second (third… fourth… ) language. Your average adolescent isn’t trying fill in a whole lot of cultural content knowledge. Your average adolescent isn’t spending her after-school hours helping mom and dad wade through medical bills.

So then, ELLs miss some things. Maybe it’s because they didn’t understand we said in class. Maybe it’s because what we said was so loaded with assumptions of cultural knowledge that the meaning got lost. Maybe they just didn’t have time the night before to sit down and watch the flipped-classroom video that we so lovingly created and uploaded.

None of this is an excuse, though. It’s not an excuse to issue failing grades because ELLs bomb the test, and it’s not an excuse to just go ahead and bump their grade up because, well, they’re ELLs.

What we need to do, then, is make sure they’re getting it. Every class period, even. Possibly several times per class period. And if they’re NOT getting it, we need to jump in and intervene. ELLs are often, as I mentioned above, short on background knowledge. Linguistic background knowledge, sure, but also cultural knowledge.

If, for example, an ELL misses the point of a math lesson because they don’t know how many strikes make an out, or how many outs per team end an inning, or how many innings make up a full game, that’s an easy fix, but only if we know it right away.

If an ELL misses the point of that lesson, and we don’t notice, they’re at even more of a disadvantage the next day, and the day after that, and… you see how it goes. Multiply that times seven or eight content-area classes per day, and it’s easy to see how those little non-understandings can add up in the long term.

Formative assessment is just general best practice for all students. I’d argue, though, that it’s whatever lies beyond best practice for ELLs. Without that broad linguistic and cultural knowledge base to pull from, a few days of misunderstanding are difficult to overcome.

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