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Assessment for the Language Classroom – Q&A Session

proofreading for English language students in EAPProfessor Anthony Green is Director of the Centre for Research in English Language Learning and Assessment at the University of Bedfordshire. He is a Past  President of the International Language Testing Association (ILTA). He has published on language assessment and in his most recent book Exploring Language Assessment and Testing (Routledge, 2014) provides teachers with an introduction to this field. Professor Green’s main research interests are teaching, learning, and assessment. Today, we share some of the questions and answers asked of Tony during his recent webinar, Assessment for the Language Classroom.

 

Should placement tests be given without students’ doing any preparation so that we can see their natural level in English?

Ideally, placement tests should not need any special preparation. The format and types of question on the test should be straightforward so that all students can understand what they need to do.

How should the feedback from progress tests be given? Should we give it individually or work with the whole class?

It’s great if you have time for individual feedback, but working with the whole class is much more efficient. Of course good feedback does not usually just involve the teacher talking to the class and explaining things, but encouraging students to show how they think. Having students working together and teaching each other can often help them to understand concepts better.

Besides proficiency exams, are there any tools to compare the students’ level to the CEFR? How I can evaluate them according to the CEFR? For example, a B2 student should be able to do this and that.

One of the aims of the CEFR is to help teachers and students to understand their level without using tests. Students can use the CEFR to judge their own level, to see what people can use languages for at different levels of ability and to evaluate other peoples’ performance. The European Language Portfolio (http://www.coe.int/en/web/portfolio) is a great place to start looking for ideas on using the CEFR in the classroom.

Practice tests can be practice in class, where students are asked to practice with new points of language…right?

I think this kind of test would be what I called a progress test. Progress tests give students extra practice with skills or knowledge taught in class as well as checking that they have understood and can apply those skills.

Ideas for testing lesson progress?

Course books and their teachers’ guides have a lot of good suggestions and materials you can use for assessment. There are also some good resource books available with ideas for teachers. I would (of course) recommend my own book, Exploring Language Assessment and Testing (published by Routledge) and (a bit more theoretical) Focus On Assessment by Eunice Jang, published by Oxford University Press.

Why does level B1 always take a longer time to teach? I notice from the books we use…there is B1 and B1+.

The six CEFR levels A1 to C2 can be divided up into smaller steps. In the CEFR there are ‘plus’ levels at A2+, B1+ and B2+. In some projects I have worked on we have found it useful to make smaller steps – such as A1.1, A1.2, A1.3. Generally, real improvements in your language ability take longer as you progress. Thinking just about vocabulary, the difference between someone who knows no words and someone who knows 100 words of a language is very big: the person who knows a few words can do many more things with the language than the person who knows none. But the difference between someone who knows 5,000 words and the person who knows 5,100 words is tiny.

Could you please tell us more about assessment?

I’d love to! At the moment I am working with some colleagues around Europe on a free online course for teachers. Our project is called TALE and you can follow us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TALEonlinetrainingcourse/

What CEFR aligned placement test would you recommend?

The best placement test is the one that works most effectively for your students. I’m happy to recommend the Oxford Online Placement Test (OOPT), but whatever system you use, please keep a record of how often teachers and students report that a student seems to be in the wrong class. If you find one placement system is not very useful, do try to find a better one.

How reasonable is to place the keys to the tests in students books?

In the webinar I said that different tests have different purposes. If the test is for students to check their own knowledge, it would be strange not to provide the answers. If the test results are important and will be used to award grades or certificates, it would be crazy to give the students the answers!

Is cheating an issue with online placement tests?

Again, the answer is ‘it depends’. If cheating is likely to be a problem, security is needed. Online tests can be at least as secure as paper and pencil tests, but if it is a test that students can take at home, unsupervised, the opportunity to cheat obviously exists.

Could you please explain how adaptive comparative judgement tests work? Which students are to be compared?

Adaptive comparative judgement (ACJ) is a way of scoring performances on tests of writing and speaking. Traditionally, examiners use scales to judge the level of a piece of student work. For example, they read an essay, look at the scale and decide ‘I think this essay matches band 4 on the scale’.

ACJ involves a group of judges just comparing work produced by learners. Rather than giving scores on a predetermined scale, each judge looks at a pair of essays (or letters, or presentations etc.) and uses their professional judgement to decide which essay is the better of the two.

Each essay is then paired, and compared, with a different essay from another student. The process continues until each essay has been compared with several others. ACJ provides the technology for the rating of Speaking and Writing responses via multiple judgements. The results are very reliable and examiners generally find it easier to do than rating scales. Take a look at the website nomoremarking.com to learn more.

Besides the CEFR, what we can use to evaluate students in a more precise way?

See my answer to the last question for one interesting suggestion. A more traditional suggestion is working together with other teachers to agree on a rating scale to use with your students. Then have training sessions (where you compare the marks you each award to the same written texts or recordings of student work) to make sure you all understand and use the scale in the same way.

Can you suggest applications for correcting MCQ tests?

Online test resources like the ones at www.oxfordenglishtesting.com include automatic marking of tests. For making your own, one free online system I like is called Socrative.

How can placement tests be applied in everyday classrooms where they are split-level classes and students with disabilities learning together with others? What about people with some sort of disability/impairment (eg. dyslexia)

Sometimes there are good reasons to mix up learners of different levels within a class – and tests are not always the most suitable means of deciding which students should be in which class. Where learners have special needs, decisions about placement may involve professional judgement, taking into consideration the nature of their needs and the kinds of support available. In most circumstances placement should be seen as a provisional decision, if teachers and learners feel that one class is not suitable, moving to another class should be possible.

What about just giving a practice test before a major summative assessment at the end of a semester?

Yes, that seems a good idea. If students aren’t familiar with the test, they may perform poorly because they get confused by the instructions or misjudge the time available. Having a little practice is usually helpful.

If you missed Tony’s or any of our other PD webinars, why not explore our webinar library? We update our recordings regularly.


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Assessment for the Language Classroom – What’s on the menu?

shutterstock_271564088Professor Anthony Green is Director of the Centre for Research in English Language Learning and Assessment at the University of Bedfordshire. Today, he joins us to preview his upcoming webinar Assessment for the Language Classroom.

What’s on the menu?

If there’s one topic in language education that’s guaranteed to get people worked up, it’s assessment. But, in truth, assessments are just tools. Like tools we use for other purposes, problems crop up when we use them to do things they aren’t designed for, when we lack the skills to operate them properly, or when they are poorly made. Knives are great tools for cutting bread, but are not so useful for eating soup. Some people are more skilled than others at using chopsticks, but chopsticks made of tissue paper are of no use to anyone.

“… different kinds of language assessment are right for different uses.”

Just like tools made to help us eat and drink, different kinds of language assessment are right for different uses. All assessments help us to find out what people know or can do with language, but they are designed to tap into different aspects of knowledge at different levels of detail.

Assessment ‘bread and butter’

The best known English language tests are the national examinations taken in many countries at the end of high school and international certificates, like the TOEFL© test, or Cambridge English examinations. For many students, these tests can seem make or break: they may need to pass to get into their chosen university or to get a job offer. Because of their importance, the tests have to be seen to be fair to everyone. Typically, all students answer the same questions within the same time frame, under the same conditions. The material used on the best of these tests takes years to develop. It is edited, approved and tried out on large numbers of students before it makes it into a real test.

‘Make or break’ testing

The importance of these tests also puts pressure on teachers to help their students to succeed. To do well, students need enough ability in English, but they also need to be familiar with the types of question used on the test and other aspects of test taking (such as the time restrictions). Taking two or three well-made practice tests (real tests from previous years, or tests that accurately copy the format and content of the real tests) can help students to build up this familiarity. Practice tests can show how well the students are likely to do on the real test. They don’t generally give teachers much other useful information because they don’t specifically target aspects of the language that students are ready to learn and most need to take in. Overuse of practice tests not only makes for dull and repetitive study, but can also be demotivating and counterproductive.

Home-cooked, cooked to order, or ready-made?

“What’s good for one [exam] purpose is not general good for another.”

When teachers make tests for their classes, they sometimes copy the formats used in the ‘big’ tests, believing that because they are professionally made, they must be good. Sadly, what’s good for one purpose (for example, judging whether or not a student has the English language abilities needed for university study) is not generally good for another (for example, judging whether or not a student has learnt how to use there is and there are to talk about places around town, as taught in Unit 4).

Many EFL text books include end-of-unit revision activities, mid-course progress tests and end-of-course achievement tests. These can be valuable tools for teachers and students to use or adapt to help them to keep track of progress towards course goals. When used well, they provide opportunities to review what has been learnt, additional challenges to stretch successful learners and a means of highlighting areas that need further learning and practice. Research evidence shows that periodic revision and testing helps students to retain what they have learnt and boosts their motivation.

Getting the right skills

Like chefs in the kitchen or diners using chopsticks, teachers and students need to develop skills in using assessments in the classroom. The skills needed for giving big tests (like a sharp eye to spot students cheating) are not the same as those needed for classroom assessment (like uncovering why students gave incorrect answers to a question and deciding what to do about this). Unfortunately, most teacher training doesn’t prepare language teachers very well to make, or (even more importantly) use assessments in the classroom. Improving our understanding of this aspect of our professional practice can help to bring better results and make language learning a more positive experience.

In the webinar on 16 and 17 February, I’ll be talking about the different kinds of assessment that teachers and students can use, the purposes we use them for, the qualities we should look for in good assessments and the skills we need to use them more effectively. Please feel free to ask Anthony questions in the comments below.

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References:
Green, A.B. (2014) Exploring Language Assessment and Testing. Abingdon Oxon: Routledge: Introductory Textbooks for Applied Linguistics.


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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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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.