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The Bridge to the Future

In developing a comprehensive grading system for English Language Learners (ELL), practitioners must first determine several key elements within the student population they are intending to serve.

Factors such as literacy levels, both within the student’s native language as well as English need to be evaluated, placement in either a mainstream traditional classroom with separate English tutoring or placement in an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classroom where foundational English instruction takes place, screening for learning disabilities, and finally, correct level placement using appropriate standardized testing must all be considered in order to apply consistent and fair grading measures to ELL students.

Once an ELL student has been properly evaluated and placed in an appropriate classroom situation, a practitioner must apply a grading system that is sufficient to measure competency, provide meaningful feedback to the student, indicate levels of performance in relationship to benchmarks and standards set forth by the school system, and also meet Title I and Title III Federal assessment requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). This presents several particularly challenging obstacles in developing a fair and meaningful grading system.

In particular, ELL students are required to not only demonstrate language acquisition competency annually per NCLB, which is often an enormous academic burden, but are also included in large-scale academic area content assessments to meet state standards. Accommodations can level the playing field in terms of standardized testing, but in proposing a fair classroom grading system that is meaningful, this essay would assert that the use of a contextual portfolio system would be even more effective in developing a grading system that is relevant to each student.

The nature of the ELL student is one where acquisition of a second language is related closely to literacy in their native language (Francis, et al, p. 6). Through the utilization of a portfolio system, a student develops concrete work product that can be referred to throughout their learning process. Just as young learners are encouraged to write, journal, create, draw, collect, and visibly demonstrate knowledge to reinforce the learning process through multiple learning inputs (visual, auditory, tactile, kinetic, etc. ), ELL students need the same kind of linkage between abstract learning concepts and physical work product.

NCLB benchmarks and state standards mean little, if anything, to an ELL student who is facing the burden of not only English acquisition, but also the responsibility for content-based competencies. A portfolio system that is well developed would include elements that, “Encourages students to see revision as an ongoing process, provides students with opportunities to reflect upon their work and their writing process…give(s) students more control over their own grades, enables the teacher to separate commenting from evaluating, and helps students to become better readers and critics of their own work” (O’Hara,, J.

2006, para. 2). Using Dr. O’Hara’s analysis, a portfolio would engage the student in selecting samples of their own work to submit for assessment, and would allow for the student to continually revisit physical work product and reevaluate prior learning as well as revising future learning goals. It would also provide a more timely analysis of troubled areas than a quarterly, semester-based, or worst-case scenario, annual evaluation of a student’s progress.

While those timeframes may meet the NCLB and/or state requirements for ELL assessments, meaningful grading systems would be more student-centered and reactive to day-to-day student achievement. An additional consideration of the portfolio system and grading systems in general in reference to ELL students would be the use of standardized letter-based or weighted scoring (4. 0, 3. 0, 2. 0, 1. 0, etc. ) versus a feedback oriented system such as S-satisfactory, I-improving, N-needs additional work, or U-unsatisfactory progress (or similar).

Weighted scoring systems, while a part of the mainstream content-based classroom, are unavoidable for the ELL student as they transition into full English-based curriculum, are not optimum for providing feedback that is meaningful to the student as they work to improve their skills. By evaluating a portfolio built upon concrete work samples and by providing feedback in the grading process such as I-improving, an ELL student knows that they are doing better than when they first entered the class, but have work yet to do to master a particular skill.

By combining this with a portfolio, an ELL student can connect constructive criticism to a particular piece of work and gain further understanding of an application. This is a better choice than to simply provide a non-meaningful grade of “C” on a quarterly basis, without any examples of basis for the scoring system. It is crucial that educators begin to acknowledge that the NCLB standards of assessment are failing the ELL population.

According to the Center on Instruction report, Practical Guidelines for the Education of English Language Learners: Research-Based Recommendations for the Use of Accommodations in Large-Scale Assessments (Francis, et al, 2006)“on a national assessment of reading comprehension in 2005, only 7 percent of fourth grade ELLs with a formal designation scored at or above the proficient level” (p. 4). Clearly the grading systems of the past have not worked for ELL students. A bridge to the future, which will provide meaningful, reactive and student-centered feedback, is a real possibility in the use of a portfolio grading system.

References: Francis, D. , Rivera, M. , Lesaux, N. , Kieffer, M. , & Rivera, H. (2006). Practical Guidelines for the Education of English Language Learners: Research-Based Recommendations for the Use of Accommodations in Large-Scale Assessments. (Under cooperative agreement grant S283B050034 for U. S. Department of Education). Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction. Retrieved November 28, 2008 from http://www. centeroninstruction. org/files/ELL3-Assessments. pdf O’Hara, J. 8 February 2006. Portfolio Grading. Retrieved 28 November 2008 from http://www. psu. edu/dept/cew/PortfolioGrading. doc

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