Leveling the Playing Field for ELLs: Equitable Grading

We can officially say goodbye to summer break and hello to another school year.  At this point in time, you are probably into the third week of school. Procedures and routines have been explained and practiced multiple times.  Back-to-school and community building exercises have been shared and implemented. You’ve spent hours lesson planning for the next several weeks; and the class is ready, and you are ready to get into the meaty details of your first unit.  


Having great and well thought out lesson plans is important.  But more than just looking at lesson plans, we, as teachers, have to investigate who the students are in our classrooms.  At our site, it is even more important to know your class because we have many ELLs of all levels and special education students mainstreamed in CORE classes.


We’ve written several blog posts on lesson differentiation and modification.  Today, I am going to talk about differential grading. What is differential grading?  Let me ask you this, “Would you compare an art project done by a kindergartener to a project done by a freshman in highschool?”  Most likely your answer is no.


In our classrooms today, we have students of varying levels of abilities and language proficiency.  We have our general ed students in the same classes as our newcomers and ELLs, and special education students.  But just as the example mentioned above, we wouldn’t grade our newcomers the same way we would grade our native English speakers, right? So, let’s go back to “What is differential grading?”  First of all, a grade is an indication of a student’s understanding of content based on the state or federal standards. The standards are set with the assumption that all students in the classroom are well versed in English and have no other issues that may hinder their learning; but we know that that is not true.  Our classrooms are as diverse as boxes of crayons. So again, “What is differential grading?” Differential grading is an equitable way of grading students with considerations of their language abilities and/or special needs.


The most important word in the definition of differential grading is the word equitable.  Let’s not confuse equitable with equality. According to the Learner’s Dictionary (A wonderful online dictionary for lower grade levels and ELLs), equitable is “dealing FAIRLY and equally with everyone.”  Equal is defined as “not changing:  the same for every person.” Let’s go back to my previous example–grading a kindergartener and a high schooler based on the same standards makes it equal.  But, is it fair? Your answer is probably a hard “NO.” Grading a kindergartner and high schooler based on his/her grade level standards is not equal (different standards), but it is equitable.  It is fairly grading each student based on appropriate measures. We grade the kindergarten based on his/her grade level standards, and the high schooler on his/her grade level standards. It is equitable because we are comparing them appropriately.  It is equal because both are measured against grade level standards. The criteria is the same, but the measurement is different.


Now that we are clear on what differential grading is, let’s look at how to set the appropriate expectations for ELLs with different language proficiency levels.  In California, we recently adopted the ELPAC (English Language Proficiency Assessment of California) as a way to measure students’ English language abilities. There are four proficiency levels, and three performance levels (ELD standards):  Emerging, Expanding, and Bridging.


ELPAC​ Proficiency ​Level​ ​Descriptors according to the California Department of Education

Level 4–English learners at this level have well​ ​developed​ ​oral (listening and speaking) and written (reading and writing) skills. They can use English to learn and communicate in meaningful ways that are appropriate to different tasks, purposes, and audiences in a variety of social and academic contexts. They may need occasional linguistic support to engage in familiar social and academic contexts; they may need light support to communicate on less familiar tasks and topics. This​ ​test​ ​performance​ ​level​ ​corresponds​ ​to​ ​the​ ​upper​ ​range​ ​of​ ​the​ ​“Bridging”​ ​proficiency​ ​level, as​ ​described​ ​in​ ​the​ ​California​ ​English​ ​Language​ ​Development​ ​Standards,​ ​Kindergarten​ ​Through Grade​ ​12​ ​(2012​ ​ELD​ ​Standards).


Level 3–English learners at this level have moderately​ ​developed​ oral (listening and speaking) and written (reading and writing) skills. They can sometimes use English to learn and communicate in meaningful ways in a range of topics and content areas. They need light to minimal linguistic support to engage in familiar social and academic contexts; they need moderate support to communicate on less familiar tasks and topics. This​ ​test​ ​performance​ ​level​ ​corresponds​ ​to​ ​the lower​ ​range​ ​of​ ​the​ ​“Bridging”​ ​proficiency​ ​level​ ​through​ ​the​ ​upper​ ​range​ ​of​ ​the​ ​“Expanding” proficiency​ ​level,​ ​as​ ​described​ ​in​ ​the​ ​2012​ ​ELD​ ​Standards.


Level 2–English learners at this level have somewhat​ ​developed​ oral (listening and speaking) and written (reading and writing) skills. They can use English to meet immediate communication needs but often are not able to use English to learn and communicate on topics and content areas. They need moderate-to-light linguistic support to engage in familiar social and academic contexts; they need substantial-to-moderate support to communicate on less familiar tasks and topics. This​ ​test performance​ ​level​ ​corresponds​ ​to​ ​the​ ​mid-​ ​to​ ​low-range​ ​of​ ​the​ ​“Expanding”​ ​proficiency​ ​level,​ ​as described​ ​in​ ​the​ ​2012​ ​ELD​ ​Standards.


Level 1–English learners at this level have minimally​ ​developed​ oral (listening and speaking) and written (reading and writing) English skills. They tend to rely on learned words and phrases to communicate meaning at a basic level. They need substantial-to-moderate linguistic support to communicate in familiar social and academic contexts; they need substantial linguistic support to communicate on less familiar tasks and topics. This​ ​test​ ​performance​ ​level​ ​corresponds​ ​to​ ​the “Emerging”​ ​proficiency​ ​level,​ ​as​ ​described​ ​in​ ​the​ ​2012​ ​ELD​ ​Standards.

Considering all these leveling descriptors, this is what we came up with for differential grading and assignment considerations.  

During the first few months of a newcomer’s exposure to school,  the student might go through what is called a “silent period”. This is a period when the newcomer student sits quietly in a class, not participating, but taking in everything around him/her.  The silent period is very important because it is the first step to language and literacy acquisition. Even though the student is not doing anything, he or she may be absorbing all the language and literacy around him/her.  Typically, after the silent period, a newcomer will start speaking with simple one word responses. Then, it becomes phrases, and with proper scaffolding, sentences, and so on and so forth.


Acknowledging the different stages of language acquisition, we assign and grade student work accordingly.  Newcomers or emerging language learners are not expected to do the same work as his other native English speaking classmates.  Knowing that their work needs to be differentiated and modified, the grading must be too. A pass or fail is the simplest way to grade a newcomer.  We expect, with proper scaffolding and support, the student will be able to do simple tasks such as labeling, pointing, copying, etcetera. At this level, students will need a lot more time to identify, process, and hopefully respond.  We will be writing about what to expect from your ELLs at each standard level in a later post.


At the expanding level, students are expected to  produce some product. But keep in mind, they will need lots of support in order to complete assignments.  At this level, students are graded on the same standards but with well-scaffolded and modified assignments or tasks.  Students at this level also require extra time to complete their work because it takes them longer to process information and compose their responses.  Sentence frames are very helpful for ELLs at this level.


The bridging level is when students have a command of everyday English but require support in academic language.  Even though the students can talk fluently in English, they will still need help. Sentence frames, graphic organizers, and close reading are just a few scaffoldings that can be put in place to help ELL students (Actually…all students) better comprehend the concepts taught.  With all the supports in place, students at this level can be graded according to the grade level standards.


So as you can see, it is not the grading that is modified, it is the process and expectations that are adjusted to appropriately fit each student’s needs and abilities.  We grade a kindergartener based on kindergarten standards, and high school freshman based on 9th grade standards.