Equitable Grading for English Learners

A few years ago, I began a position as Curriculum and Instruction Director for a relatively small school district. After about two years, I was also given ESL Coordinator duties. Though I had over 20 years in education, I had very little experience teaching or even learning about English Learners. Thus, I was extremely nervous at my very first meeting with experienced ESL Coordinators from my surrounding districts. I vividly remember my shaky introduction of “Hello, my name is Shannon Bogert, and I know very, very little about the teaching of English Learners. I hope you’ll share your knowledge.”

Fortunately, I reached out to those with expertise and immersed myself in as much learning as possible. Since our district serves approximately 444 English Learners, I felt it my duty to ensure that those students received the best education that they possibly could. Though ESL is a largely unfunded mandate and typically districts scrounge for resources to help meet the specific learning needs of English Learners; I however, am extremely fortunate to work for a superintendent who believes in designating resources to fund teachers, materials, and professional development. Similarly, our teachers are very devoted to and extremely receptive to meeting the needs of this unique group of learners.

So yes, we have a minimum of three ESL teachers in every school, four Lead ESL teachers who provide professional development and instructional coaching support, and we have compassionate general education teachers who provide warm and receptive environments.  Yet, we still struggle with the grading of English Learners.

Here’s what I know:

  1. English Larners should be graded according to their levels of English proficiency. All English Learners in the state of Alabama take the ACCESS assessment each year. The results of this assessment provide feedback regarding the student’s English proficiency.  The levels are as follows: Level 1 – Entering; Level 2 – Beginning; Level 3 – Developing; Level 4- Expanding; Level 5 – Bridging; and Level 6 – Reaching.
  2. Once a teacher knows a student’s level, he should design lessons based on a student’s Can-Do Descriptors and the content standards. Unfortunately, that may or may not happen.

You may not have familiarity with Can-Do Descriptors. Basically, they show classroom teachers what students are able to do based on their levels of English proficiency. You can find information at https://wida.wisc.edu/teach/can-do/descriptors

Before we really pushed planning with Can-Do Descriptors, the job of accommodating assignments generally fell to the ESL teacher. That became a huge, often frustrating task. To be more efficient, we have spent a lot of time in professional developing, working with teachers on how to write lessons using the Can- Do Descriptors. In addition, part of our PLU required administrators to evaluate lesson plans looking for the descriptors.

So what does this look like in practice? In the eLearning Course, Teaching Your First ELs, G. de Jong, shares how to blend Alabama content using WIDA standards and a formative framework. He shares the following example: Let’s say I’m a 5th grade social studies teacher. My standard is “Explain effects of European exploration during the Age of Discovery upon European society and Native Americans, including the economic and cultural impact.”  The way an accommodated lesson may look is as follows:

Level 1: Match early explorers and Native Americans they impacted with illustrations and labels.

Level 2: Identify explorers and Native Americans depicted in illustrations and phrases.

Level 3: Compare/contrast different European countries and Native Americans using graphic organizers and sentences.

Level 4: Interpret effects of exploration on Native Americans using graphic organizers and texts.

Level 5/6: (Students “test-out” at 4.8) Detect trends or make generalizations based on historical events or people’s actions using grade-level text.

We expect grades for English Learners to be standards-based, but ONLY reflective of a student’s Can Do’s. Are we perfect? No, but we are really trying! We definitely have to employ some instructional coaching to help reluctant teachers in the process; but as long as it’s a focus and expectation, we generally see success.


Shannon Bogert has been an educator for more than 20 years, teaching multiple K-12 grade levels, as well as at the post-secondary level. Shannon currently serves as Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Pelham City Schools. Her interests include creating targeted instructional strategies for diverse learners, developing teacher capacity, and mentoring instructional leaders. Her greatest accomplishments, however, are her three adult children and being Nonna to the world’s most amazing four year old granddaughter.

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