This week when working with a group of PreK-12th grade teachers on instructional strategies for ELLs (English Language Learners), I would ask the teachers how to accommodate the activities presented to meet the needs of their students’ various English proficiency levels. For one activity, a teacher stated he would complete part of it and the student complete the rest. I challenged his response with the idea of just eliminating the part of the activity which was beyond the language acquisition level for the student. To which other participants in the room responded the student had to complete the whole activity. Then, I showed them how other elements of the activity demonstrate the student’s understanding of the concept. Additionally, the student would have ownership of the finished product and feel success. For the most part, my idea sat well with the participants, but I could sense there was a handful of teachers who believed the student must complete the whole activity to receive credit.
How often do we expect all students to fit into the same mold? Modifying the end product is a form of differentiation. According to Tomlinson and McTighe in Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design (2006), “Certainly, in a differentiated classroom a teacher acknowledges that although it is not negotiable that a student demonstrate understanding, how that student might best do so is highly flexible” (p. 69). When we think of differentiation, we often focus on the instructional delivery. However, the demonstration of student learning is just as important. Not only do teachers need to take students’ various learning needs into account when planning instruction, but also when planning for assessment.
One might argue classroom assessment must mirror the rigor of the state assessment. To an extent, I agree. Though, if a student’s English proficiency is not at grade level, then their content knowledge should be measured without the student being penalized for language acquisition. Jim Cummins states it takes five to seven years for a second language learner to reach cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) in their new language. So, assessment accommodations must be made to honor the ELLs needs and give them the opportunity to show what they know.
This reminds me of the television show, “The Biggest Loser.” When comparing the weight loss of the contestants each week, it was not the total pounds lost but the percentage of weight lost. By calculating it in this way, each contestant was measured in an individualized manner. Likewise, when assessing our students, language acquisition levels need to be taken into account to determine an accurate measure of content knowledge.