Assessing Writing Bilingually and Authentically: International Community School and ALAS

In 2001-2002, its first year of existence, the International Community School (ICS), which serves 300 kindergarten through fifth graders in the predominantly Latino Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, California, felt assessment pressure from several different directions. ICS had to demonstrate that students were learning to write well, and it needed to measure students’ Spanish and English literacy skills in its bilingual and sheltered English programs (classes where English is the primary language of instruction). The ICS teachers also wanted to inform their own pedagogy so that they could best prepare students for the next grade and eventually for middle school, where fewer bilingual classes exist and most students are fully immersed in English. Finally, the school had to respond to outside calls for accountability, especially from Oakland’s district requirement to demonstrate that the civil and educational rights of their Spanish-speaking students were being met.

To address their multiple literacy assessment concerns, ICS principal Janie Naranjo-Hall and the ICS founding staff chose to use the Authentic Literary Assessment System (ALAS), collaboratively created by Eugene Garcia, former Dean of the University of California at Berkeley School of Education (and current Dean of the Arizona State University College of Education), other Berkeley researchers, and teachers. In the classroom, ALAS is a two-day process. Teachers read prompts aloud to students; students discuss the prompts in small groups and create graphic organizers (cognitive maps, for example) to record their thoughts. The following day, students use their notes to write responses to questions, demonstrating the literacy skills that they have been working on in class. Teachers then meet in grade-level groups and score student writing according to a rubric that evaluates topic, organization, style and voice, and use of conventions on a fourteen-tier scale. The process is similar in English and Spanish, with differences emerging primarily in the area of conventions. Sheltered English classes do the ALAS three times in a year and bilingual classes tackle the ALAS three times each in English and Spanish.

ICS teachers worked collaboratively with an ALAS coach to modify the rubric in several cycles to meet their own expectations and the Oakland district standards, and they reviewed their students’ ALAS results in professional development sessions with other Bay Area teachers and U.C. Berkeley staff. Commenting on the professional development aspect of the ALAS process, ICS’s 2001-2002 ALAS coach Carolina Serna says, “Not only does the ALAS give an assessment of student writing, but it helps the teacher be reflective about her teaching.” Teachers invested significant time in preparing for, administering, scoring, and reflecting on ALAS, which sometimes was tough in ICS’s start-up year, but they feel that the results were well worth the investment. ICS teachers believe that it allows students to demonstrate their literacy skills in ways that less tailored “off the shelf” assessments would not. ALAS’s detailed rubric, which teachers refined over the summer in preparation for the school’s second year, also helps teachers identify what their students need to work on, and they can correspondingly fine-tune their curriculum. Fourth grade bilingual English-Spanish teacher Raquel Rodriguez-Jones says, “Of all of the evaluations we do, this is the most ours. The rubric is really helpful to show ourselves and the students what their next steps will be and I know they’ll build on their skills when they leave my class because we use ALAS schoolwide.” ICS principal Janie Naranjo-Hall agrees, noting, “We can look specifically at what students know about topic and organization and we can analyze how their commonalities, language, and culture lead to these patterns. It gives us more insight into writers as individuals.” Commenting on how the ALAS demonstrated writing improvement, coach Carolina Serna says, “Even though last year was the beginning, because there was strong commitment on the part of teachers, we saw improvement toward benchmarks at all grade levels. Some grades reached and exceeded their goals—improvement was especially dramatic in the bilingual second and third grade classrooms.”

ICS’s experience with ALAS demonstrates the strength of an assessment given several times a year, in the languages of instruction and based on classroom curriculum, that corresponds to school—and district—wide standards and that allows teachers to evaluate collaboratively. ICS students’ exhibition of literacy progress on the ALAS has helped its teachers refine their curriculum to continue to help their students reach or maintain high levels of literacy and multilingualism.

For more information about the Authentic Literacy Assessment System, please visit U.C. Berkeley’s Response Learning Communities website at, which provides links to research reports, other schools’ uses of the ALAS, and more.