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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.

register-for-webinar

 


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Measuring Progress in Academic ESL Classes

Measuring Progress in Academic ESL ClassesLawrence J. Zwier, testing expert and series advisor for Q: Skills for Success, Second Edition, looks at some strategies for measuring student progress in language learning.

Language teachers often discuss the difficulty of measuring how well their students are doing.  A typical comment goes something like, “When you’re testing in a history class (or biology, or law, etc.) it’s easy. They either remember the material or they don’t.” This oversimplifies the situation in “content classes,” where analysis might be just as highly valued as memory, but the frustrated ESL/EFL teacher has a point. Teaching in a language class does not aim to convey a body of knowledge but to develop skills—and skill development is notoriously hard to assess. It’s even harder when the skills are meant for use outside the language classroom, but the only venue in which you can measure IS the language classroom.

However, all is not lost. There are many good, solid principles to apply in measuring how your students are doing. What’s more, they don’t require the assistance of test-construction experts or the statistical skills of a psychometrician. The average ESL/EFL teacher can do the measurement and interpret the results in ways that will have immediate benefits for their students.

The idea that measurement benefits students can get lost in discussions of measuring progress. So often, we think of measurement as serving the educational institution (which needs to promote people, issue grades, and so on) or the teacher (who needs to know how well a certain objective is being met). But it’s an established principle of memory science that frequent measurement (or, more familiarly, testing) is one of the best aids in learning. Researchers at Kent State University tested the recall of several pairs of English-Lithuanian word pairs—that is, they studied how well subjects remembered not just the Lithuanian or English words but also the pairing of those words across languages. The main variable was how often a given subject was tested on the associations of the pairs. The researchers found a clear correlation between the number of “retrievals”—the number of times a participant was required to recall the pairs on tests—and the long-term memory of the pairs.

You may be sensing a dichotomy you’ve noticed before, that of formative vs. summative evaluation. Summative evaluation comes after a period of learning and is meant to see how much learning took place. Think final exams, midterms, end-of-unit tests, and so on. Formative evaluation occurs during the period of learning and is a part of that learning. The test is a teaching tool. Each type of testing has its place. There’s nothing wrong with summative testing, and the educational system would lose structure without any of it. Many students would also lose motivation, because—love them or hate them—big tests have a way of making people work. But the Kent State research we mentioned clearly shows that formative testing is not just some touchy-feely distraction. Measuring your students often is instructive—both for you and for them. You can easily find examples of formative-assessment activities through a Web search; a good link to start out with is http://wvde.state.wv.us/teach21/ExamplesofFormativeAssessment.html.

Here is a brief look at some important principles in measuring the progress of ESL/EFL students.

Use many small measures, not just a few big ones. This is just common sense. If you rely on two or three measures during the course of a semester, your measurements are much more vulnerable to factors that skew the results—the students’ health, the students’ moods, problems with classroom technology, your own fallibility in writing test items, and so on. If your program requires some big tests, so be it. Make every effort to add other little tests/quizzes along the way as well—and have them influence the students’ grades in a significant way. Also, share the results of these measurements with your students.  An especially effective technique is to make these smaller tests and their grading echo what happens in the larger tests. That way, the frequent tests offer not only periodic retrieval of language points but also practice with the format of the larger test.

Don’t administer what you can’t evaluate. You can’t give frequent assessments if it takes you five hours to grade each one. Most of your questions in measurements should be discrete-point items. This means that the questions have clearly identifiable correct answers that are limited in scope.  Yes, I love seeing my students produce essays or get in front of class to give 5-minute presentations. However, I can’t assess—or give meaningful feedback on—more than two or three such long-form outputs in a semester. Especially when I’m teaching reading or listening, I have to depend on multiple-choice questions, true/false, fill-in, matching, and all those other limited-output formats. What you may have a harder time believing is that short-form questions are appropriate in writing and speaking classes as well. A writing student can demonstrate many skills in two or three sentences. A speaking student can demonstrate a lot by speaking for 45 or 60 seconds—as they do on the Internet-based TOEFL.

Avoid unnecessary interference from other skills. This dovetails with the previous point. If I am trying to measure reading comprehension—a very abstruse target, if you think about it—I don’t want the student’s weaknesses in writing, speaking, or even listening to get in the way. I want to ask a comprehension question that can tell me something about the student even if the student cannot compose a good sentence, articulate a spoken answer, or comprehend a long, spoken introduction. Give me something that requires minimal output to indicate the handling of input. Of course, there is no perfect question, nothing that can get me inside that student’s head and point out relevantly firing neurons, but a simply worded question that requires circling a letter, or writing T/F, or drawing a line is less likely to be muddied by other factors than one that requires complex answers. Gillian Brown and George Yule noted long ago how hard it is to assess actual listening comprehension. They pointed out that a listener’s “personal representation of the content of a text” is “inside the student’s head and not directly available for extraction and objective examination.” Simplify your attempts to examine it by avoiding obscurant factors.

Beware viral items. Digital technology makes test security harder every year. And don’t assume that student lore on the Internet concerns itself only with the big boys—the large, high-stakes tests. If you’ve handed out a piece of paper with a test question on it, there’s a decent chance that it now, somewhere, roams the pastures of the Web. If you were not terribly observant during the test, a student may have snapped a cell-phone picture of it.  Even if you were hawkishly watching, many students, by the time they reach 18 or so, have prodigious memories and a tradition of getting together beforehand to divvy up the memorization of a test: “You take questions 1 – 3, Sam will take 4 -7, and I’ll take 8 -10.” My colleagues and I have adapted by just not re-using any old material in important measures of progress. For quick practices with nothing on the line, I might not care. However, each truly important measurement instrument is a new one—though perhaps based on an old one, with answers re-jigged and re-ordered. (Such reshuffling reduces the amount of writing I have to do.)

Be your own grumpy editor. I work frequently with the best item writers in the ESL/EFL field. One mark of a good item writer is that he/she assumes there’s something wrong with the first draft of anything. After you write a measurement item, let it sit for a few hours or a day. Then go back to it carrying a nice, sharp boxcutter. You’ll be surprised how often you discover that the question doesn’t really address what you want to assess, or that there are actually two possible correct answers in your set of multiple choice options, or that the reading/listening passage doesn’t clearly say whether a measurement statement is true or false.  Good measurement is impossible without good items. It’s worth the effort to slash and rewrite.

 

References and Further Reading

Association for Psychological Science. “Testing improves memory: Study examines why memory is enhanced by repeated retrieval.” ScienceDaily. 16 June 2011. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/06/110615171410.htm

Brown, Gillian, and George Yule. Teaching the Spoken Language: An Approach Based on the Analysis of Conversational English.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 1983

West Virginia Department of Education, “Examples of Formative Assessment.” Accessed 31 October 2014, at http://wvde.state.wv.us/teach21/ExamplesofFormativeAssessment.html.


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Discover the NEW International Express Tests and Teacher’s Guides

Students Sitting at Desks and WritingBruce Wade, Managing Editor of International Express, introduces his upcoming webinar on 11th September about the new International Express Tests and Teacher’s Guides.

The new International Express launched earlier this year, and now, plenty of extra resources to support the course are available for free on Oxford Teachers’ Club.  In this webinar, I’ll be exploring how the new Teacher’s Guides can help you quickly plan your lessons, and I’ll show you around the new tests and Student Progress Report, which help you to regularly and quickly check your students’ performance.

Plan your lessons in a flash

International Express comes with extensive extra resources including photocopiable activities, videos for every unit, and worksheets to support each video – so you won’t be short of material, but how do you make the best use of it all?  We’ve developed Teacher’s Guides for every level, which give a clear, one-page overview of the course, meaning that you can see all the syllabus items, target language and skills, and resources in one go. I’ll be exploring how you can use these to plan your lessons quickly and easily.

Regularly check students’ progress

Tests are an important part of every course, and International Express tests provide comprehensive coverage of all the language in the Student’s Book.  Most test items are written as A‒B exchanges to reflect the communicative nature of the course.   There is a separate test for each section so teachers can test their students after completing a section, or a unit.  I’ll explain the different ways you can use these with your class, and we’ll look at how you can analyse the results to make direct comparisons of your students’ performance across sections, and whole units.

Analyse students’ performance

We developed the unique Student Progress Report to help you measure students’ performance unit-by-unit, and across different skills.  I’ll explain how you can use this tool to see how a student is performing across the four sections of a unit, and we’ll look at how you can customise it, for example, by drawing different types of graphs, or by adding comments on your students’ performance.

I look forward to helping you making the most of all of these resources on 11th September.  In the meantime, you can take a look at them on Oxford Teachers’ Club – you just need to sign in with your usual log in details.


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Making Good Tests

Teacher and two students

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Larry Zwier shares some thoughts about his upcoming webinar, Making Good Tests. Larry is a series consultant for Q: Skills for Success, the author of Inside Reading 2, and an Associate Director at Michigan State University (East Lansing, Michigan, USA), where many of his duties involve making tests, administering them, and evaluating their effectiveness.

Students often talk about test anxiety. Some say they freeze up and can’t show what they really know because they’re “not good at taking tests.” Teachers may experience their own form of test anxiety. A teacher may feel completely confident in handling a classroom, presenting material, directing students in individual and group work, and so on, yet that same teacher may freeze up when assessment time rolls around. On February 6, I’ll present a webinar about getting past that freeze-up stage and writing good tests.

Specifically, I’ll make reference to using material from OUP’s series, Q: Skills for Success. I know that series intimately. I am one of the series consultants, and I was in on the discussions from the very start about what Q should be and how it should play in the classroom. Part of that “classroom role” aspect involves testing. How should we assess whether students are understanding the passages (reading or listening), picking up the vocabulary, and developing the language skills we practice? What feedback can we give students that will boost their performance in the future?

In the first part of the webinar, I’ll tell participants how to take advantage of testing materials already prepared for Q by Oxford University Press. These come in various packages – via CD and online – and I’ll explain how to get them and use them. In the second part of the webinar, I’ll approach a somewhat tougher topic: How to write good tests on your own.

Of course, testing is a huge topic and we could spend dozens of hours discussing it. I’m going to keep the webinar basic and practical. Issues I’ll address include:

  • What’s my testing goal (fluency/accuracy, syntax/lexis, main ideas/details, etc.)?
  • What are the stakes?
  • What format will work best in my classroom circumstances?
  • How can I identify good points to test in a reading / listening passage
  • I’m a teacher, not a cognitive scientist. How can I know whether a test is good?

I look forward to the webinar—a great chance for me to interact with colleagues from around the world.


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Child-friendly Placement Testing

Girl sat at computer smilingAhead of her talk at IATEFL Liverpool, Amy Malloy takes a look at the importance of child-friendly placement testing. Amy is an Assessment Manager in the Test Development Unit at OUP, specialising in young learner assessment.

Young learner assessment is becoming an increasing issue in primary language teaching. Parents, fellow teachers, and educational authorities all want more and more information on the standard of English of children under their care.

In a world where language testing is becoming increasingly important, with decisions on scores being potentially career-defining for both teenagers and adults, we have a responsibility as educators to ensure that this pressure does not begin to impact upon younger learners.

We can do this in three ways:

1. By finding ways to assess our young students’ language ability in a low-pressure, fun, enjoyable way in the classroom. Research has shown that young learners actually produce and respond to language better when they are having fun.

2. By ensuring that any information learned from this assessment is used to target our teaching to each individual child’s ability. This can increase the child’s motivation and maximise learning outcomes.

3. By understanding more about the different types of assessment tools at our disposal and what they should be used for. We believe that accurate and reliable assessment can be integrated into everyday classroom teaching, as part of an enjoyable and positive experience for young learners, rather than causing anxiety.

The best place to start is with accurate placement at the start of the year. By creating a fun placement lesson at the start of a course or school year, not only do the children start off motivated and engaged, but you also gain accurate information with which to confidently plan and customise your teaching for the term or year, which in turn serves to maintain motivation.

My presentation at IATEFL Liverpool will take a workshop format, looking at different types of assessment tools and the information they can give us, how to create a positive placement testing experience in the classroom, and finally, ways to integrate the new online Oxford Young Learners Placement Test into an engaging first lesson of your children’s school year or language course.

Amy Malloy will be talking about Child-friendly Placement Testing at IATEFL Liverpool on Wednesday 10th April in Hall 14 at 3.05pm.