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Five ways teachers can engage multilingual & multicultural learners in classroom assessment

By Dr Erin Furtak

In recent years, schools have increasingly moved to student-centered classroom environments. In these settings, students and their ideas and questions drive learning and teaching. Students have the chance to create ways of showing what they know that align with these ways of teaching; portfolios, performances, and other ways of doing things that are aligned with/more authentic to students’ experiences in their lives/future work.

We also know that the ways that we assess what students know - both while their learning is still in progress, and at the end of instructional units - doesn’t always align with these student-centered ways of knowing. Modern approaches to assessment are based on efforts to sort, rank, and measure students in ways that provided access to further opportunities, or excluded students from these opportunities. These outmoded ways of doing assessment can constrain the curriculum in ways that limit students’ access to learning & opportunities. In addition, we know from research that language and culture influence how learners take assessments (Arbuthnot, 2020; Solano-Flores, 2016). We also know that the traditional ‘canon’ of knowledge taught in schools comes from White, Western ways of knowing. This makes it more important than ever that we take the time to rethink how we design and use subject assessments in schools with kids - particularly in multilingual and multicultural settings.

As a visiting scholar with Linden Global Learning and Support during March 2022, I visited many teachers, school leaders, parents and students working and learning at International Schools. They shared their experiences, which align with many research-based findings, to identify several ways to better support learners across linguistic and cultural differences through the ways we design and enact classroom assessments.

Five ways to support learners in classroom assessment

1. Make it safe

Perhaps the most important place to start is to help students know they are safe to share their ideas. A complication of classroom assessment is that teachers have the dual role of both supporting and evaluating students’ learning. In order to help students learn, teachers need to let students know that it is safe to talk with them and let them know where they need support. Students might need more encouragement to ask for help or will need support to bridge different cultural or linguistic differences. In turn, teachers can also let students know that their ideas, their experiences, and their questions all have a place in the classroom. Building on a foundation of trust - which means opening up classroom space for student ideas, rather than shutting students down - can help students feel comfortable to take risks and ask questions.

2. Make it relevant

We all know that when we are planning lessons for students, it’s important to make connections with students’ ideas and experiences. The same is also true for assessment - rather than switching into unfamiliar contexts, we want to build on what students know and invite them to apply their learning to questions, scenarios, and problems that are relevant to their lives. Mandy Watson, science teacher and Vice Principal of Teaching and Learning at Berlin Metropolitan School, invites students to study human demographics in a community they connect with, and then places students in pairs to share their presentations. This creates a low-stakes learning environment where a student from Costa Rica can connect with a student from Sweden, and Ms. Watson drops in to find out what students learned. This can help to motivate the students to share what they know, and to make connections with other learners in class.

3. Make it accessible

International schools serve a wide spectrum of students from various linguistic backgrounds, but are not designed/intended to assess students in all these languages. As students develop competency in English, we need to be aware that assessing them in this language will require design features of those assessments so that all students can show what they know. Fortunately, we know a lot about how assessments can be designed to be more accessible by bi/multilingual learners (Fine & Furtak, 2020). You can find a sample of a modified middle school science assessment with annotations here.

  • Allow students to use all their linguistic resources, not just English. This means that they might occasionally mix a word from their home or other language into a sentence with English words; this is a natural way of communicating at the hybrid space between languages, and doesn’t limit students as much. You can also invite students to share relevant vocabulary words in their own languages, so that they can draw on (and celebrate) their expertise in their own language to inform what they’re learning about at home.

  • Avoid complicated sentence structure/words in assessment questions and instructions. Over complicated sentences and vocabulary can hold students back from sharing everything they know. If there’s a simpler way to ask a question, use it!

  • Using graphics to support the text. When possible, use graphical representations, pictures, and other visuals to support the text. Students can use these together with the words they know to interpret what’s being asked.

  • Provide support not just around vocabulary, but also the ‘action’ words in assessment questions. While students might be able to figure out the meaning of science vocabulary, the other words in the instructions - like compare, describe, deduce - might be less familiar. You can pre-teach these words or, like Ms. Watson does, use brackets after the word to describe what the word means in simpler terms. Students who already know the word will skip over the bracketed text, but it will provide crucial support to others who need it.

4. Use multiple modalities

While our default method of assessment is often to ask students to write down their responses, there are many ways to capture all they know and are able to do. As the ways we think about learning shift to be more inclusive of students’ varying knowledge and experiences, the kinds of assessments we use in schools should also reflect ways of learning and doing that mirror the most important ideas and competencies we hope students will learn. We can create multiple kinds of spaces where students can show what they know; this means they should be able not just to write their responses but to draw, diagram, and otherwise represent their thinking. Teachers I spoke with use whiteboards, tables, posters - all sorts of ways for students to capture these ideas. These representations can serve as a way for students to show teachers their ideas, and then talk about them.

5. Build bridges, not gates

Christine Orkisz Lang, A former elementary international school teacher and principal, encourages us to think about where we “meet in the middle” between the summative assessment that students experience in schools, and what we do in our own classrooms at the start of and throughout the learning process to support improved understanding.

At the end of the day, we want to provide all learners with opportunities to build on their current ideas and to grow in new directions in school. In order to do this, we need to help students make many connections between those ideas and the goals for their learning. This means we seek to use assessment in classrooms in ways that build bridges, not gates that can close out learning opportunities for some students.

What can school leaders do?

While these shifts may seem small, they can make huge differences in students’ ability to learn through classroom assessment. School leaders can create spaces for teachers to come together and talk about how to make these changes in small, grade-level or content-specific groups. In this way, ongoing conversations about diversity and inclusion at international schools can extend to assessment as well.

We might think about assessments as something that is curriculum-based or administered by an external authority, but teachers actually have a lot to do with how students access learning - and particularly how they experience assessment - in their classrooms. Our own histories and identities influence the way we see and hear students. We need to be aware of how our own instructional decisions and responses to students in assessments can open up their opportunities to learn. As teachers, we ask students questions and respond to them in ways intended to support their learning; we must be aware of the filters of our own ideas and experiences, and how those intersect with the ideas and identities of the learners in our classes.

In regular meetings - think weekly or monthly - teachers can talk about learning goals, their own identities as teachers conducting assessment, and their students’ interests and what assets they bring to the classroom. Then teachers can select and adapt assessments together that better encapsulate these changes, and come together to look at student responses to determine next steps for instruction.

About the author:

Erin Marie Furtak is Professor of STEM Education at the University of Colorado Boulder. A former high school science teacher, she studies the design and practice of classroom assessments; her recent research has sought to determine ways to design assessments that better support multilingual students in sharing what they know, as well as in supporting teachers in listening to and supporting students through formative assessment. Her partnership with Linden Global Learning and Support is supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.



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