Assessing ELLs Part 2: Challenges of Assessment

These next few posts will discuss assessing ELLs: the purpose of assessment, challenges of assessment, and working language/learning objectives into assessments.


Welcome back to my mini-series on assessing ELLs! You can view post one here. This second post will focus on the challenges of general assessment and some of the unique challenges of assessing ELL students. Let’s begin!

What challenges come with assessing students?

Teaching, as with any profession, has its own share of challenges and rewards. One challenge is assessing students that encompass a multitude of learning styles and competencies.

Some challenges specific to assessment are the following:

  • time preparation
  • validity of the test and scores
    • the type of test
    • the way of scoring
    • the use of scores
    • how the scores impact student performance, leveling, needed support
  • teacher bias – we all have our favorites (even though you might say you don’t), but we need to be fair when grading assessments
  • materials available – they should reflect the teaching methods and student learning
  • assessing previous knowledge and knowledge progression – there may be a lack in continuity from one grade to the next
  • evaluation of skills and processes – How did the students find the answer? What did they use to gain that content mastery level?
  • evaluation of group work – Do you evaluate all the members evenly? Do you evaluate each member according to what they brought to the group?

These challenges are difficult to overcome at times, and sometimes things are not always fair in the end (like with group projects).

What challenges come with assessing ELL students?


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Assessing ELLs comes with its own set of unique challenges. Unlike native-English speakers, ELLs have the added task of decoding and using a second language. When forming assessments for ELLs, first it’s important to establish the purpose of the assessment. Will you assess ELLs’ content knowledge? Will you assess their language development skills? Will you assess both?

Perhaps it’s good to assess both, but at different times. An example of assessing for content could be this:

(For a Social Studies Class) “What are three types of communities, and how are they different?”

The students would be expected to list and explain how urban, suburban, and rural communities are different. That type of assessment allows students to demonstrate what content they’ve been expected to learn.

An assessment for language development might be this:

(For an English class) “Use time phrases and transition words to describe your daily routine.”

The students would be expected to use language they’ve learnt in class to answer the question.

Another thing to keep in mind is accommodations for students. When accommodating ELLs, teachers shouldn’t give them too much help, but they shouldn’t give them too little either. Teachers should make the assessment appropriate for both native-speakers and ELLs (if it’s a mixed class).


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Teachers should also take into account state and/or national education standards and make the assessment reliable. One major point to consider is that ELLs may have a low proficiency in CALP (cognitive academic language proficiency). Some terms may be unfamiliar to ELLs – especially in content areas such as science, mathematics, or social studies.

Two areas of complexity to consider

ELLs have already developed language acquisition skills through learning their native language. In an English-language classroom setting, ELLs, unlike native-English speakers, have to process information in a language apart from their own. That can be quite difficult for some. For teachers, that presents a challenge for making the content engaging for ELLs, as well as understandable in English.

When forming assessments for ELLs, it’s necessary to consider these two points:

  1. ELLs may understand the content, but cannot articulate their knowledge well in English due to inadequate L2 acquisition skills, and
  2. ELLs may not fully comprehend the content, or comprehend it inaccurately.

Teachers conduct both formative and summative assessments regularly to decide what language supports need to be developed and used.

Some solutions for assessing ELLs

As with all students, assessing ELLs should be carried out fairly. Teachers should provide a mix of formal and informal assessments, provide opportunities for self and peer assessment, modify the testing environment (if needed), assess process and product of learning, and opportunities for authentic assessments (chance to apply knowledge and skills in real-world situations).

The course I’m taking that covers assessing ELLs provided a link to an excellent (and long) video featuring Dr. Lorraine Valdez Pierce, discussing effective classroom strategies for assessing ELLs. Here is the video below!


I hope this post has been helpful to you! Look forward to more posts about assessing ELLs!

Thank you!


Filed under Assessment, EFL, ELL, English, ESL, Second Language, Teaching

2 responses to “Assessing ELLs Part 2: Challenges of Assessment

  1. Pingback: Assessing ELLs Part 3: Developing Language and Learning Objectives for Assessment | So, You Think You Can Teach ESL?

  2. Pingback: Assessing ELLs Part 4: Using Authentic Assessment | So, You Think You Can Teach ESL?

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