Practical Ideas on Alternative Assessment for
ESL Students. ERIC Digest.
by Tannenbaum, Jo-Ellen
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.
NONVERBAL ASSESSMENT STRATEGIES
"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.
ORAL PERFORMANCES OR PRESENTATIONS
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,
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
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.
ORAL AND WRITTEN PRODUCTS
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
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
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
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.