Unit13 Assessment in Language Teaching

Aims of the unit:

In this unit, we are going to discuss how to conduct assessment in language teaching. We will mainly talk about the following:

1.     Assessment purposes

2.     Assessment methods

3.     Assessment criteria

4.     Assessment principles

5.     Testing in language assessment

13.1 Assessment purposes

To put it simply, assessment in EFT means to discover what the learners know and can do at a certain stage of the learning process. Before we look at assessment in detail, let’s discuss why assessment is necessary. With different assessment purposes in mind, we may adopt different assessment methods.

A close study on the assessment purposes will make it clear that all the people involved in education have some reasons to consider assessment necessary. They are administrators, teachers, parents and students.

Administrators: Administrators provide money and personnel for education. They need to know whether the programmes they have planned are working well The only way to do this is to discover how well the pupils are doing with their courses. If assessment results are different from what they have expected, they need to replan the programmes so that better accomplishment can be achieved later.

Teachers: Teachers put the administrators’ plans into practice. In the continuum of learning, teachers need to know what has been done and what needs to be done next; what the pupils already know or can do and what they do not know or cannot do yet. If the program is well planned, it pretty much depends on the teachers’ performance whether the program eventually leads to success.

Parents: Nobody is more anxious than parents to know how their children are doing in school. Unable to watch their kids in the class, parents value the feedback about their children’s performance from the teachers and the school.

Students: Finally, students need to know what they’ve accomplished, be aware of what they need to work on text, and build up their confidence and satisfaction from what they have achieved.

It should be noted that both positive and negative assessment should be made available to the learner, as honestly as possible. It is essential, however, for such assessments to be given in an atmosphere of support and warm solidarity, so that learners feel that the teachers’ motive is to promote and encourage their learning, not to put them down. The problem in negative assessment is often not the assessment itself, but rather the accompanying implications of aggression on the side of the assessor and humiliation on the side of the assessed.

More often than not, the problems with assessment are not with its purposes but with the aspects of its nature, namely, methods, criteria, principles and feedback, etc.

13.2 Assessment methods

Assessment is often associated with testing, so speaking of assessment methods, many teachers immediately think of tests. However, there is an important difference between assessment and testing. Assessment is usually based on information collected about the learners’ current situation. Testing is only one of the different ways to collect information. Testing is a single-occasion, unidimensional, timed exercise, usually in multiple choice or short-answer form. Testing is formal, and is often standardized, which means that everyone takes the test under the same conditions. In other words, everyone is given the same procedures for administering and scoring, the same test materials and items, and the same norms against which they are compared.

Assessment is a broader term. It implies evaluation based on a collection of information bout what students know and can do. This involves many ways and methods of information gathering, formal and informal, at different times and in different contexts. Testing is part of assessment, but it is only one means of gathering information about a student. The focus in testing is on finding the norm. Assessment is broader than testing. The teacher is looking at progress over time in a variety of contexts.

To assess accurately, to record, and to give feedback on what the students are accomplishing and where they are on the learning continuum, we need to gather as much information as possible before making decisions about the students. Besides, the information we gather should be accurate and reliable.

Besides testing, which can be formal or informal. There are many other ways to gather information, such as teacher’s assessment, continuous assessment, students’ self-assessment, and portfolios.

Teacher’s assessment: Research shows that the teacher’s knowledge of children and their strengths and weaknesses is more accurate and sound than testing. Very often the teacher’s subjective estimate of the learners’ overall performance or achievement can be quite accurate and fair. The teacher can get information by observing the students in class and by looking at their work.

Continuous assessment: The final grade given to the student is not his or her mark on the final exam paper; rather, it is some kind of combination of the grades the learner has received for various assignments during the course. It can also include the grades that the teacher has given for students’ performance or participation in the class activities. It could also be a written report rather than just a grade.

Self-assessment: The students themselves are given the chance to evaluate their own performance, using clear criteria and weighing systems agreed on beforehand. Students are able to make quite accurate of their own achievements.

Portfolios: Portfolios are collections of assignments and projects that students have done over a long period of time. These materials are usually put in a file kept by the students or the teacher. The portfolios provide the basis for evaluation.

13.3 assessment criteria

It is agreed that assessment means to discover how well learners know things or can do things. But “well” is often comparatively “well”, not absolutely “well’. So the question is what criteria assessment should be based on. How “well’” is “well’ enough?

Depending on different assessment purposes and the stage at which the assessment is made, assessment should be made according to different criteria or references. The terms “criteria-referenced” and “norm-referenced” are originally used to refer to two types of tests. However, recently they have been extended to refer to assessment in general. A third type of assessment is known as “individual-referenced” assessment.

Criteria-referenced assessment: Criteria-referenced language assessment is based on a fixed standard or a set criterion. The national or local educational authority may have this standard or criterion. A school or severe schools in a district may have their standard or set criterion for whatever purposes they might have. A fixed standard is usually the ultimate goal which the students are expected to achieve at the end of the course.

Norm-referenced assessment: Norm-referenced assessment is designed to measure how the performance of a particular student or group of students compares with the performance of another student or group of students whose scores are given as the norm. A student’s achievement is therefore interpreted with reference to the achievement of other students or groups of students, rather than to an agreed criterion.

Individual-referenced assessment: Individual-referenced assessment is based on how well the learner is performing relative to his or her own precious performances, or relative to an estimate of his or her individual ability. For example, if a student could only say a few words in English after a few months of the course, and now after another month’s study, he is able to speak with some fluency (although there is inaccuracy), we can surely say he has made great progress.

13.4 Assessment principles

The heterogeneity of assessment methods and assessment criteria does not mean assessment has no principles to follow. On the contrary, some vital principles have to be observed if effective assessment is to be made. Generally speaking, assessment should:

assess authentic use of language in reading, writing, speaking, and listening;

assess literacy and language in a variety of contexts;

assess the environment, the instruction, and the students;

assess processes as well as products;

analyze patterns of errors in language and literacy;

be based on normal developmental patterns an behavior in language and literacy acquisition;

clarify and use standards when assessing reading, writing, and content knowledge;

involve students an parents, as well as other personnel such as the ESL or mainstream teacher, in the assessment process;

be an ongoing part of every day.

It is ideal if assessors can follow all these principles. But in reality, it is very difficult to achieve this. First of all, “assess authentic use of language” is extremely difficult, though desirable. According to this principle, to assess a learner’s oral skills, it is best to see how he or she performs in a real communication situation, for example, asking for direction on the street. Can we do this on the street? What teachers usually do is to give the student a situation and ask what he or she should say in that situation. For example, What would you say if you want to ask the policeman how to go to the railway station? But this is not real communication. That the student knows what to say does not mean he or she can really say it in real situation.

13.5 Testing in assessment

We have said that testing does not equate with assessment, but testing is, at least now, the most widely used method to collect information for the purpose of assessment. So it is desirable and necessary for teachers to familiarize themselves with testing techniques.

Before we look at testing techniques, let’s first look at some drawbacks of using tests for assessment. Tests are often a one-off event which may not necessarily give a fair sample of the learner’s overall proficiency; they are not always valid or reliable; and if they are seen as the sole basis for crucial evaluation in the learner’s career, they can be extremely stressful.

Tests tend to fragment skills. Most tests test only lower-order thinking skills. These include such thinking skills as memorization and recall, not higher-order skills such as inferencing and synthesizing. Many tests cannot show whether the student knows the material or not. With multiple choice items, the student has a good chance of randomly choosing the correct answer and standardized tests usually have no or little context.

Besides, tests cannot tell where exactly the students have failed.

When assessment is solely dependent on test results, teachers tend to begin teaching to the test. Teaching has become test practice. Students try to find out what will be tested and how it will be tested. However, if well designed and reasonably administered, and the wash-back effect is positive rather than negative, tests can be a useful component for language assessment.

Test items can be designed in various formats. A test whose items are designed in different formats tends to have more validity and reliability than a test that is designed in a single format, for example, multiple-choice format. Below are the most frequently used test formats.

Questions and answers: Students are asked to answer questions according to information provided in reading texts or recorded materials. These questions can either be wh- questions or Yes/No questions. It is better to have both types. It is very important that these questions themselves should not be too long. Other wise the students will to spend a lot of time reading the questions, which means they will have less time reading the original texts or listening to the tape. And furthermore, the questions should be simply worded.

True or false questions: Students are provided with a set of statements related to the read or heard texts and required to decide whether they are true or false according to the texts.

Multiple-choice questions: This form can be used virtually for all language areas, such as reading, listening, vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. Usually there are 3-5 choices, one of which is the correct answer, and the rest are distracters. Great care is needed when designing this type of questions. If ill-designed, very often either the correct answer is too obvious, or there is more than one possible answer, or it is very easy for students to eliminate one or two distracters. Again these choices should not bee too long, especially for reading and listening tests.

Gap-filling completion: Students are asked to complete paragraphs or sentences by either filling in words that they think are appropriate or choosing the best from the given choices. The test goals can be of grammar, vocabulary, or reading comprehension.

Matching questions: Traditionally matching is only used for vocabulary tests, i.e. students are asked to match words with their definitions or their synonyms or antonyms. Now matching is used in a great variety of ways. For example, in listening tests, students are asked to match pictures with the descriptions in the recording, in reading tests, students are required to match subtitles or headlines with sections of a text.

Dictation: Students write down exactly what is read to them. The dictated materials can be sentences or short paragraphs. Dictation reveals many aspects of language knowledge and skills that the students have acquired, such as listening skills, grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. It is believed all these contribute to a good piece of dictation.

Transformation: Usually students are asked to transfer sentences from one pattern to another but keep the original meaning. A similar term for this form is rewriting. But rewriting can be rewriting a longer text in another genre.

Translation: Students are asked to translate sentences or paragraphs from or into the target language. Again good translation requires many aspects of language knowledge and skills, but it also requires good command of one’s native language. So translation is not often used for young learners of foreign languages.

Essay writing: Students are asked to write an essay on a certain given topic. Usually a set of instructions are given regarding the length, format and topic of the expected essay. Evaluation is based on both the language and the contents of the essay.

Interview: Interviews are often used to evaluate oral skills. The testers ask the students questions or ask them to perform some tasks. An alternative to the one-by-one interview is that students are asked to work in pairs or groups, performing a task or debating on a controversial topic.

13.6 Conclusion

In this unit, we started with the discussion about assessment purposes. We believe that assessment is to find out what students already know and can do rather than what they do not know and cannot do. However, at the present time, assessment (test in particular) is often conducted to find out the students’ weaknesses, which damages the students’ motivation and confidence in language learning.

Assessment can be done in many ways. Testing is only one of them. Varying assessment methods according to assessment purposes and contexts helps to make assessment fairer and more reliable. Whatever methods or formats are used, assessment must always follow a set of principles which guarantee assessment validity and reliability.

When tests have to be used in assessment, great care must be taken when teachers design test formats and items. Tests designed in different formats tend to have more validity and reliability than tests designed in a single format.