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A new vision for language assessment

When did you last have your eyes examined?

It’s recommended that adults with normal vision should have their eyes checked every couple of years. Understanding the health of the eyes and how to improve vision is a highly skilled task so is best done by a qualified optometrist. It is also easiest when the patient cooperates and is happy to sit patiently while, for example, trying to read the wall chart through different lenses.

With some patients (fidgety young children) this is a challenge, but the skilled optometrist finds different ways to relax them and to turn the exam into a child-friendly experience. Arriving at an effective prescription involves both the optometrist and the patient. The optometrist offers different choices, the patient honestly reports whether the picture becomes clearer or fuzzier. Between them they find the right tools (such as glasses or contact lenses) to improve the patient’s ability to see. The optometrist may also offer clinical advice on ways to protect or improve vision, or find problems that require specialist treatment.

Seeing language assessment differently

Effective language assessment should be more like an eye examination. Learners want to be able to communicate better. The well-trained teacher, like the optometrist, gives them carefully chosen tasks to perform, helps them find the right tools to communicate more effectively and gives advice on helpful study strategies. Finding the best next steps for learning is cooperative: it involves cooperation and trust between the teacher and learners. Certainly, learners are sometimes unwilling to cooperate, but the good teacher looks for ways to make learning the language and the assessment process more engaging and motivating.

One size doesn’t fit all

Unfortunately, the techniques we use for assessment are often too basic to do the job. We tend to think of assessment as something that happens at the end of a learning process. A check on whether the learners have learnt as much as we think they should. This is rather like an eye examination that puts patients in front of a wall chart, gives them a pair of glasses designed for someone with average visual acuity for their age group and simply tells them that they can see better, as well as, or worse than expected before sending them on their way. In fact, our techniques discourage cooperation and instead push learners to disguise any difficulties they may have with language learning. Rather than telling the teacher that they are struggling to understand, they’ll do what they can to pretend they have ‘20/20 vision’ to get the top grades. Some, looking at their poor results, may conclude that they can’t learn and give up all motivation to study languages.

A new vision

I think it’s time for us in the language teaching profession to look at assessment through a new set of lenses. It should be the starting point for finding out about our students, not the last step in the teaching cycle: filling in the grades before we close the book. Briefly, we need to assess learning earlier and more often, but using less intrusive methods: more observation and portfolios; fewer tests and quizzes. We need to think of assessment as an interactive process. If an answer is wrong, why is it wrong? What can be done to improve it? If it is right, why is it right? What does the learner understand that helped them to find the right answer? Can they help other learners to understand? We need to include learners more in the assessment process, experimenting with language to find out what works best: not trying to hide their difficulties.

Join me at the online conference on 1 or 2 March for more ideas on how to re-focus assessment on what really matters in the language classroom.


ELTOC

Tony Green
is running a webinar on this topic for OUP’s free English Language Teaching Online Conference in March 2019. Find out how you could be a part of this fantastic professional development opportunity by clicking here.


Anthony Green is Director of the Centre for Research in English Language Learning and Assessment and Professor in Language Assessment at the University of Bedfordshire, UK. He is the author of Exploring Language Assessment and Testing (Routledge), Language Functions Revisited and IELTS Washback in Context (both Cambridge University Press). He has served as President of the International Language Testing Association (ILTA) and is an Expert Member of the European Association for Language Testing and Assessment (EALTA).

Professor Green has consulted and published widely on language assessment. He is Executive Editor of Assessment in Education as well as serving on the editorial boards of the journals Language Testing, Assessing Writing and Language Assessment Quarterly. His main research interests lie in the relationship between assessment, learning and teaching.


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Assessment in the mixed-ability classroom

Student looking confused

Erika Osvath is a freelance teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer. She joins us on the blog ahead of her webinar ‘Mixed-ability teaching: Assessment and feedback’, to preview the session and topics she will explore.

One of greatest challenges facing teachers of mixed-ability classes is assessment, especially in contexts where uniformly administered tests and giving grades are part of the requirements of the educational system.

These forms of assessment, however, tend to lead to unfair results. They are like holding a running event where participants set off from a different spot on the track. Naturally, in each case the distance covered and the rate of progress will depend on individual abilities. It is easy to imagine that there may be several students who cover the same distance within the given period of time, putting in the same amount of effort, but will be awarded with different grades for their performance. This can be extremely disheartening to them and may easily result in lack of motivation to learn.

Also, students tend to interpret their grades competitively, comparing their own performance to the others in the group, which, again, leads to anxiety and low self-esteem, becoming an obstacle to further improvement. The gap between learners, therefore, is very likely to increase, making learning and teaching ever more difficult.

We, teachers, are therefore challenged to find different forms of assessment within this framework, where all students achieve the best they can without feeling penalized, but continue to remain motivated and invested in their learning.

Self-assessment and continuous assessment are crucial in the mixed-ability classroom as they

  • give learners the opportunity to reflect on their individual results,
  • give learners information on what they need to improve in in smaller and manageable chunks
  • help learners draw up action plans that suit their language level and learning preferences
  • inform the teacher about their teaching and about their individual students.

Let’s look at a few practical examples.

My own test
Students write one test question for themselves at the end of every lesson based on what they have studied. You may need to give students a few examples of such questions initially. At the end of the term students are invited to sit down with the teacher to look back at all these questions and use them as the basis for checking and discussing their progress. Alternatively, depending on the age and the type of students in your class, they can be paired up to do the same thing. With this technique it is interesting that learning takes place when the question is written, not when it is answered.

A practical way of providing students with the opportunity to go through the same test at their own pace and have time to reflect and re-learn is the Test-box technique.

Test-box
Make several copies of the end-of-unit tests and cut them up, so that each exercise is on a separate piece of paper. Place them in the test box (make sure it is a nice-looking one to make it more appealing!) and keep it in the classroom. Allocate “test-box times” regularly, say, every second week for half an hour, when students have the chance to do the tasks they choose from the box. It is important to inform students of the minimum amount of exercises they have to complete by a given date.

How to use the Test-box
1. Students choose one exercise from the box.
2. They write their answers in their notebook, not on the paper.
3. As soon as they finish, they go up to the teacher, who marks their answers.
4. If all the answers are correct, they are given full credit for it and it is noted down by the teacher. In this case they choose a second exercise.
5. If there are mistakes, the student goes back, trying to self-correct using their notes or books, or they can decide to choose a different exercise from the test box.

The great thing about this technique is that although I tell students the minimum requirement for a top grade, they become less grade oriented and start to compete in learning rather than for grades.

Of course, there are many more advantages to it, which we are going to discuss in our webinar as well as look at further practical ways of assessment and how to best combine them in the mixed-ability classroom.

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