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Assessment for English Learners

An illustration of four types of formative assessment in a fifth-grade physical science unit

Safety First

Garbage-sort safety guidelines

  • Assemble the piles of garbage for the activity, making sure not to include broken glass or sharp objects.
  • Ensure the garbage has as little liquid as possible.
  • Direct students to wear protective goggles and use plastic gloves and tongs for handling the garbage.
  • Direct students to wash their hands after handling the garbage.
  • Consult the school nurse before proceeding with the garbage sort. If students have allergies (nuts, mold, etc.), students may view videos of decomposition.

Landfill bottle safety guidelines

  • When students make observations of the landfill bottles, instruct them to look through the side of the bottles and waft smell out of the bottles.
  • Students should not place their faces directly over the open landfill bottles.
  • If a student has a known mold allergy or severe asthma, store the open landfill bottle outside the classroom. Consult with the school nurse.
  • Open the closed landfill bottles outside to allow the smell to diffuse.
  • Direct students to wash their hands after handling the landfill bottles.

Formative assessment is an essential practice for supporting all students, including English learners (ELs), in the science classroom (Furtak, Heredia, and Morrison 2019). Formative assessment is assessment that takes place during the course of instruction with the goal of improving teaching and learning. Research suggests that formative assessment is a powerful lever for promoting student learning, and it may be particularly powerful for ELs, who are developing content and English proficiency simultaneously (Heritage, Walqui, and Linquanti 2015). Formative assessment can be particularly useful in instruction aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in which students build and revise their understanding over time as they engage in three-dimensional learning (science and engineering practices; disciplinary core ideas; crosscutting concepts) to make sense of phenomena. Formative assessment typically consists of three steps:

  • The teacher elicits information about student learning through various methods.
  • The teacher interprets (or makes sense of) that information.
  • The teacher uses that interpretation to provide feedback.

In this article, we introduce four types of formative assessment that teachers can embed in their science instruction with ELs: (1) class checks, (2) small group checks, (3) self and peer checks, and (4) individual checks (Table 1). The four types of embedded formative assessment are explained and illustrated in the context of a fifth-grade science unit aligned to the NGSS and designed with a specific focus on ELs (Lee et al. 2019). This unit underwent rigorous review by Achieve, Inc., and was awarded a Badge of Distinction, indicating the highest quality in NGSS instructional materials design. The unit addresses fifth-grade performance expectations in physical science related to the structure and properties of matter. Over the course of the unit, students investigate the phenomenon of what happens to garbage in their home, school, and community to answer the driving question, What happens to our garbage? To answer this question, students engage with science and engineering practices (e.g., carrying out investigations, arguing from evidence), crosscutting concepts (e.g., patterns, systems and system models), and disciplinary core ideas (e.g., materials are identified by their properties; gas is made of particles too small to see that are moving freely; conservation of weight).

Class Check

On the first day of the unit, students enter the classroom to find a pile of their school lunch garbage. After carefully curating the pile to include only safe items and ensuring that students are wearing appropriate safety gear, the teacher prompts students to sort the garbage into categories. (See “Safety First” for guidelines for this investigation.)

Students sort the garbage materials in different ways based on patterns (crosscutting concept) in the properties of the materials (disciplinary core idea). At this point, when students have finished sorting their lunch garbage, the teacher may want to get a sense of whether students are beginning to develop their understanding of patterns and properties. That’s where the Class Check comes in (Figure 1). The purpose of Class Checks is for teachers to read individual student work (in the form of an exit slip or an entry in the science and engineering notebook) and gauge the class’s level of understanding. Then, the teacher uses this information to provide feedback to the class.

Table 1. Summary of four types of formative assessment.

Elicited Student Performance



Class Checks

Written responses (both linguistic and visual modalities)


Classroom instruction (oral)

Small Group Checks

Student’s oral participation in small group work as well as group artifacts (e.g., models)

Small group and individual students

Real-time feedback in the form of discipline-specific prompts (oral)

Self and Peer Checks

Students’ oral presentations and/or artifacts

Small group and individual students

Oral and/or written comments

Individual Checks

Written responses

Individual students

Written comments

Figure 1
Example of a Class Check.

Example of a Class Check.

In the Class Check in Figure 1, students answer a series of questions about the categories their group used to sort the garbage and the similarities and differences in properties between the categories. Students record their responses in their science and engineering notebooks. Figure 1 also shows the response of an EL who chose to use both visual and linguistic modalities to illustrate the categories of garbage selected by their group in response to the first question in the Class Check.

Next, the teacher reads students’ responses—either after the class period or, if pressed for time, while students are working—to get a sense of students’ initial ideas. The purpose of this Class Check is not to grade individual students’ responses but rather for teachers to get a sense of where the class is overall in their developing understanding. Finally, the teacher uses this information to provide feedback to the class in the form of a whole-class review. For example, if the class is having difficulty applying the crosscutting concept of patterns or the disciplinary core idea related to properties, the teacher will review these concepts and ideas with additional examples during the next class period. The teacher might guide students in identifying the properties of everyday objects and the similarities and differences in their properties.

As illustrated in this example, an important feature of Class Checks is that they support learning progressions—the idea that students develop their science understanding over time. Teachers use Class Checks to get a sense of their students’ thinking at various points, not to “correct” this thinking (which could short-circuit opportunities to develop deep science understanding), but to create meaningful opportunities for students to revise their thinking moving forward. Also, Class Checks provide opportunities for students to respond using multiple modalities, including drawings, written English (both words and full sentences), and home language. This allows all students to demonstrate their thinking and can be especially beneficial to ELs, who are in the process of developing English proficiency.

Small Group Check

Over the course of the unit, students carry out an investigation where they put food and non-food materials in landfill bottles and observe changes over time to find out whether the properties of the food and non-food materials change. (See “Safety First” for guidelines for this investigation.) Students keep one landfill bottle open and the other closed to find out whether the amount of matter in each bottle changes over time (Figure 2).

Figure 2
Landfill bottle investigation.

Landfill bottle investigation.

As students make observations of the landfill bottle systems over several weeks, they start to notice an unpleasant smell coming from the open landfill bottles and ask, “What is that smell?” To answer their questions about smell, students engage in a series of investigations. In one investigation, they compress air in a syringe. This investigation produces evidence that air is in fact something, which will eventually lead to the idea that air and smell are gases made of particles too small to see.

As students carry out the syringe investigation in small groups, the teacher engages students in a Small Group Check, as shown in Figure 3. The purpose of Small Group Checks is to assess student understanding and promote deeper discussion among students when they are working in small groups. The teacher circulates around the class and listens to each group’s discussion to get a sense of students’ current thinking. Then, the teacher draws flexibly on the probing questions to promote deeper discussion and to move students’ thinking forward.

Figure 3
Example of a Small Group Check.

Example of a Small Group Check.

Small Group Checks are a form of dynamic or interactive formative assessment in which the teacher gains insight into student understanding and provides immediate feedback in the form of probing questions (not “correct” answers) that guide students’ thinking forward. The probing questions are discipline-specific in that they target specific science concepts and ideas that are the focus of the task at hand. For example, the question “Why can’t you push the plunger all the way down?” is meant to draw students’ attention to the key idea that air takes up space and is something. These discipline-specific prompts go beyond the type of general-purpose talk moves that teachers typically use with ELs (e.g., “Say more about that”). Also, the interactive nature of Small Group Checks can be particularly beneficial to ELs, as it allows teachers to modify their own language as well as scaffold their students’ language in real time (Bailey and Heritage 2014).

Self and Peer Check

After carrying out several investigations and having developed a new understanding of particles, students in small groups develop models to explain what is happening in their landfill bottles (Figure 4). Specifically, they represent “smell” as gas particles flowing out of the open system but staying inside the closed system. At this point, the teacher may want to get a sense of students’ developing understanding of the science concepts and ideas represented in their models and their engagement in the practice of developing and using models. The teacher uses a Self and Peer Check for students to assess their own work as well as the work of their peers.

Figure 4
Model of the open and closed landfill bottle systems.

Model of the open and closed landfill bottle systems.

In the Self and Peer Check shown in Figure 5, groups assess their own model and that of their peers and provide feedback on each other’s models. Specifically, they assess the extent to which the models include key components, processes, and modeling conventions. Then, students use this information to ask questions that will help their partner group revise their model. For example, if one group’s model includes wavy lines instead of particles to represent smell, the other group may ask, “What is the smell made of? How could you represent the idea of gas particles in your model?”

Figure 5
Example of a Self and Peer Check.

Example of a Self and Peer Check.

By engaging in Self and Peer Checks—which can be used with a variety of artifacts, including models, arguments, and explanations—students become explicitly aware of task expectations and criteria. For example, students become aware of how models require labels or a key to ensure effective communication. As students revise their models based on their partner group’s feedback, all students, including ELs, learn to use multiple modalities strategically to communicate their ideas. ELs in particular benefit from interactions with peers, who provide examples of different ways to communicate science ideas. For Self and Peer Checks to be used effectively, it is essential that teachers provide guidance to students on how to assess work in relation to criteria and how to communicate feedback clearly and constructively.

Individual Check

Another week passes, and students return to their landfill bottles to make their final observations. They notice that, while the weight of the closed system has stayed about the same during the investigation, the weight of the open system decreased at each time point. At this point, the teacher can use an Individual Check to assess, in a more formal way, the extent to which each student has developed science understanding over the course of the unit. In the Individual Check shown in Figure 6, students are asked to construct an argument to answer the question: “Does the amount of matter change in a landfill bottle?” In this example, the Individual Check includes a graphic organizer as a scaffold to help students organize their response. As students become more proficient with the practice of arguing from evidence over the course of the year, these types of scaffolds can be gradually removed.

Figure 6
Example of an Individual Check.

Example of an Individual Check.

The teacher then assesses students’ arguments using a task-specific rubric (Figure 7) and provides individual written feedback to students using a feedback form (Figure 8). For example, in response to the sample argument in Figure 6, a teacher may point out that the student included a claim that was correct and answered the question but did not use specific data from the investigation or include reasoning linking their evidence to their claim.

Figure 7
Sample teacher rubric for the Individual Check.

Sample teacher rubric for the Individual Check.

Figure 8
Sample teacher feedback form for the Individual Check.

Sample teacher feedback form for the Individual Check.

Individual Checks are particularly useful later in a unit of instruction when students are constructing written arguments or explanations based on the science understanding they have developed over the course of the unit. In Individual Checks, the teacher uses detailed rubrics that attend to both the science ideas and the precision with which those ideas are communicated, thus encouraging teachers to attend to the content and language needs of all students, including ELs. For example, the rubric for the landfill bottle argument expects students to be precise in comparing the weights of the open and closed systems at different time points. The teacher then uses the criteria outlined in the rubric to provide specific comments to individual students.


We have presented four types of formative assessment that teachers can be embed in their science instruction to support the learning of all students, including ELs. Although each type of assessment serves a different purpose, what makes them all formative is that they involve the same three steps of formative assessment. For example, in Class Checks, teachers elicit information about student learning through written responses in the form of entries in the science and engineering notebook or exit slips. Teachers then review those responses with specific criteria in mind to make interpretations about the level of understanding of the class as a whole. Finally, teachers use their interpretations to provide feedback (e.g., a whole-class review). In Small Group Checks, teachers elicit information about student learning by structuring a small group task and discussion. Teachers listen to that discussion and examine the artifacts produced by the group. Teachers then make interpretations about the individual students’ and the group’s level of understanding and provide feedback in the form of real-time, discipline-specific prompts.

These types of embedded formative assessments are particularly beneficial to ELs because they provide opportunities to demonstrate learning in multiple ways, including oral, written, and visual responses as well as individually and in collaboration with peers. These types of assessments also invite teachers to carefully attend to ELs’ science ideas and the way ELs communicate those ideas through their developing English, with the goal of advancing ELs’ science learning and language learning simultaneously.

Ultimately, to enact instruction aligned to the NGSS, we must think about assessment differently. First, we need to think about assessment as ongoing rather than something that happens only at the end of instruction. The unit that features these checks includes at least one type of embedded formative assessment in almost every day of instruction. By embedding formative assessments into science instruction, assessment information can be used to improve teaching and learning. With ELs in particular, teachers can collect real-time information about these students’ science and language learning and provide feedback. Second, we need to ensure that the assessments we embed in our instruction reflect our broader instructional approach, specifically the NGSS emphasis on building and revising science understanding over time. When teachers embed a range of formative assessments into their instruction in ways that are consonant with their overall instructional approach, all students, and especially ELs, benefit.

Lorena Llosa ( is a professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at New York University. Scott E. Grapin is an assistant professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Miami in Coral Gables. Alison Haas is the Director of Development and Implementation for the SAIL project at New York University.


Bailey, A.L., and M. Heritage. 2014. The role of language learning progressions in improved instruction and assessment of English language learners. TESOL Quarterly 48: 480–506.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Furtak, E.M., S.C. Heredia, and D. Morrison. 2019. Formative assessment in science education: Mapping a shifting terrain. In Handbook of formative assessment in the disciplines, eds. H. Andrade and R.E. Bennett, pp. 97–125. Philadelphia: Routledge.

Heritage, M., A. Walqui, and R. Linquanti. 2015. English language learners and the new standards: Developing language, content knowledge, and analytical practices in the classroom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Lee, O., L. Llosa, S.E. Grapin, A. Haas, and M. Goggins. 2019. Science and language integration with English learners:A conceptual framework guiding instructional materials development. Science Education 103: 317–337.

Assessment English Language Learners Equity Physical Science

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