English Learners

ELL Assessment Strategies

6 Min Read
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Assessments are vital in understanding where students are coming in, what areas they need support in, and how they are progressing. Assessments prove to be especially important when working with English language learners (ELLs), as they also provide a detailed look into students’ English language development. Explore the different types of assessments to monitor ELL students’ growth and progress. Plus, learn how to best use these assessments in your classroom.

A note on language: Students who are learning English do not fit neatly into a single label and come from a range of cultural, linguistic, and educational backgrounds. We use the common phrases multilingual learner, English language learner, ELL students along with the acronym ELL, but we recognize that no label is perfect.

Types of Assessments for ELL Students

Each state’s ELL identification and placement process varies, but typically, ELL students are given a placement assessment to determine their English language proficiency level. Once students’ levels are determined, various types of assessments are administered to monitor and assess ELL students’ growth in the English language as well as in content areas like reading and math.

Diagnostic, Formative, and Summative Assessments for ELL Students

Different assessments serve different purposes. Diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments take place throughout the learning process and provide insight into where students are before, during, and after learning. All three of these assessments can be used with ELL students.

Diagnostic assessments are used before instruction to determine students’ knowledge and abilities. This can look like a survey, checklist, or pre-test. Administering a diagnostic assessment to English language learners can be particularly helpful, as it can be used to evaluate students’ incoming English language proficiency levels, determine knowledge within different content areas, and identify areas of need. Teachers can use the information from a diagnostic assessment to set learning goals and tailor lesson plans and learning activities to meet ELL students’ needs.

The goal of formative assessment is to monitor student progress during the course of their learning. Formative assessments are ongoing. Examples include quizzes, exit tickets, and teacher observations. The information gathered with formative assessments can help teachers adjust learning activities and motivate ELL students to meet their learning goals.

Summative assessments are given at the end of an instructional unit, such as an end-of-unit test or a final class essay. When choosing a summative assessment for English language learners, consider what skills should be assessed. For example, if wanting to evaluate students’ oral language skills, ask students to give an oral presentation.

Formal and Informal Assessments for ELL Students

The aforementioned assessments can also fall into the categories of formal and informal assessments. Formal assessments are standardized and data-based exams, such as end-of-the-year and benchmark testing. English language learners are given several formal assessments, including English language proficiency exams and standardized state tests, which can assess reading comprehension and math. When taking a formal exam, ELL students may receive accommodations, like additional test-taking time.

On the other hand, informal assessments involve evaluating students’ performance with other types of data that typically do not have standardized grading criteria. This includes exit tickets, classroom observations, and project-based assessments. Informal assessments are administered regularly throughout the year, so teachers can provide students with immediate feedback and use results to plan for differentiated instruction.

Alternative Assessments for ELL Students

Traditional assessments, like multiple-choice exams and true-or-false quizzes, might not give a full picture of ELL students’ abilities. A student still learning English may stumble on correctly and quickly understanding what a problem is asking for or misinterpret what’s being asked. According to research, alternative assessments provide ELL students with an opportunity to showcase what they can do with the English language and what content they know beyond a paper-and-pencil test. Performance-based assessments, like role-playing, allow students to demonstrate their English language proficiency in an authentic way. Project-based assessments engage ELL students in hands-on tasks that integrate language learning with content knowledge. Peer review can be an alternative assessment to use with ELL students as it encourages peer interactions and promotes language development through discussion.

Authentic Assessments for ELL Students

An alternative form of assessment to consider with ELL students is authentic assessments. Authentic assessments assess students’ ability to apply knowledge in real-world scenarios, such as interviews, demonstrations, and portfolios. This assessment type serves as a meaningful way to evaluate ELLs’ English language proficiency and content knowledge. In fact, one study shows that incorporating these performance-based assessments provides English language learners with opportunities to make connections between their lives and the curriculum. Challenges to consider when using authentic assessments are that they may take longer to grade and cannot be scaled up to a school, district, or state level.

How to Assess ELL Students in the Classroom

Use the following assessment strategies to effectively evaluate ELL students’ language proficiency and overall academic growth.

Identify the Purpose for Assessment

Before giving out a test or assigning a performance task to students, think about the purpose of the assessment. For example, if you want to gauge what students know, then a diagnostic assessment, like a survey, may be best.

Differentiate Assessments

ELL students can master the same content-area standards as other students but may need different pathways to show what they know. Consider students’ English language proficiency levels and offer multiple means of assessments. For example, have students demonstrate their understanding of content areas through oral presentations, visual projects, or demonstrations instead of only assigning a traditional multiple-choice test.

Use Assessment Rubrics

Rubrics are a great tool to communicate assessment criteria and expectations. Rubrics provide students with clear guidelines for assignments and make grading more transparent. They also allow students to self-assess their work and reflect on the learning process. As for teachers, rubrics help save time with grading and provide an opportunity to give timely and detailed feedback.

ELL Assessment Examples

There are so many ways to assess ELL students’ progress and understanding. Below are examples of assessments to use with ELL students.


Portfolio assessments are one way to track student learning and progress over time. Students compile a portfolio with work samples, such as writing prompts, exams, and projects. These samples serve as evidence of their understanding of a particular concept or standard. Portfolios provide teachers with insight into how students learn.

Oral Presentations

Through oral presentations, ELL students can demonstrate understanding of content area concepts and engage in oral language practice. Students can give oral presentations in different ways, for example they may present to a small group or give a lengthier presentation to the whole class.

Student-Teacher Conferencing

Student-teacher conferences are an effective strategy to assess ELL students’ growth and progress. During this one-on-one conversation between teacher and student, the student can explain and share what they’ve learned. Plus, the teacher can provide real-time feedback and answer the students’ questions.

Using a wide range of assessments can provide a well-rounded perspective of where your English language learners are and how to best support them.


The English 3D assessment suite includes summative unit assessments, daily formative tasks, and performance-based assessments, providing the data insights teachers need to support each learner.

Download our free guide to using response frames with multilingual learners.

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