Assessment: An Opportunity to Learn

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* Article first published in FORTELL September 2011 issue.

Purpose and relevance of assessment

As we all know, tests have become an accepted component of formal instructional programmes throughout the world. They are considered valid, reliable indicators of students’ performance and potential and are being used increasingly to make decisions about the quality of a particular programme/course, admission to various courses and selection for jobs. Sometimes tests are justified on the basis of accountability: are students learning what they are supposed to be learning? This kind of evidence is required to make judgments about how to spend resources, whether to continue with a particular course/ textbook etc. Tests also provide an opportunity to give feedback to language students for future improvement.

Hence it is important to deliberate upon whether our language tests help us to draw inferences about the language abilities of our students that are reliable and a true indicator of their proficiency and consequently help us to make correct decisions based on those inferences? What does a particular score tell us about that student’s language ability or about classroom teaching? Do scores and grades shed light on the kind of errors our students make, provide reasons for those errors along with solutions? Do they help curriculum developers to revise textbooks or help teachers to modify their teaching practices?

It is important to define the purpose of a test even before we design it because it is the goal which will guide us throughout the process of test design, its administration, scoring of test scripts and finally drawing inferences based on those results. When great emphasis is being laid on the processes of learning and gathering information and celebrating the individuality of the child, it becomes imperative to put in place assessment procedures that take processes, and not the product into cognizance while assessing the learner. This lack of congruence between the assumptions behind language teaching and actual testing methods means that we are unable to use assessment opportunities to either get a realistic picture of what students are capable of doing or help improve their future performance.

Testing as an opportunity

Testing should also be seen as an opportunity, an opportunity to help students reach their potential. Researchers call it a sharing of power when students and the teacher/tester collaborate through dialogic interaction because it allows for greater equity and fairness in testing (Fox, 2008). When students actively participate in the process of evaluation, when they are aware of and help select the criteria of evaluation, they not only internalize it but also use it during the process of attempting the task, to produce better results. Therefore, assessment should be seen as a dynamic process which is not carried by predetermined or unknown criteria, but is a result of consultation and collaboration, where learners interact in an open dialogue with others to decide what is to be evaluated and how.

On the one hand, it demystifies the whole process of assigning scores which usually does not lead to any real learning, except to teach students to produce “expected” answers; on the other, the teacher is no longer mystified why her students repeat errors despite corrective feedback because interaction, collaboration and dialogue, between students and teachers and among students provide insights into the reasons for error.

Collaborative learning and assessment

When a teacher values her learners, inviting them to discuss and decide upon the criteria for assessment, she is empowering them by helping them to self-assess, which is one of the most important characteristics of a successful learner. For instance, the teacher can generate a discussion on what are the features of a good piece of writing; students can be asked to enumerate the features and develop a grading/ scoring key which will act as a benchmark for them while they attempt writing tasks. This ability to assess oneself is acquired over time by interacting with more able peers and/or elders and is internalized with repeated practice, helping students to do a self check on the quality of work they are producing.

The following rubric was modified for use after discussions with 8th grade students of Berlin Middle School, Worcester County, US.

Writing to Persuade Rubric

Score Point 4

  • I have taken a clear stand on an issue and I fully support it with appropriate personal or factual information.
  • I have chosen numerous specific details that more than adequately support my stand.
  • I have an organization that is logical and does not jump around.
  • I understand the type of audience I am writing for and I use language and arguments that they will understand.
  • I make good language choices to help influence the reader to agree with me.

Score Point 3

  • I have taken a clear stand and I give it some support. The information is presented clearly.
  • I have chosen enough specific details to support my stand.
  • I have an organization that is logical but it strays a little.
  • I understand the type of audience I am writing for.
  • I make some good language choices to help influence the reader to agree with me.

Score Point 2

  • I have taken a stand but I may not have made my position very clear. I tried to support it with some details but I may not have done a very good job. The details may not be the best ones I could have chosen or they might not even support my stand.
  • There are some details but they are too general or may not really help to explain my position.
  • I tried to have an organization but I did not do a good job with it and it tends to jump around.
  • I tried to understand the audience I was writing for.
  • I did not use good language choices to help influence the reader to agree with me.

Score Point 1

  • I saw the prompt and I tried to respond to it. I did not take a stand on the issue. I presented some information but it still is not clear how I stand on the issue.
  • I have little or no details.
  • I have no real organization.
  • I did not try to write for the audience.
  • I did not use any language choices to help influence the reader to agree with me.

Since, we seldom work in isolation, without recourse to a friend/peer, a dictionary or in today’s e-age, google, we must provide similar opportunities for students so that they can work in collaboration, visit and revisit the task at hand and focus on the process rather than simply getting the end product right. Observing students as they are actively engaged in meaningful learning activities and with their peers over a period of time examining the work that they produce not only presents the most authentic and complete view of what students know and can do, but the most informative.

Multiple methods of assessment

Traditional tests only measure students’ current performance level, that too, at a particular point in time which may not provide an adequate and fair measure of the students’ language proficiency. If we want test results to be fair and valid indicators of student performance, we must provide our students more than one opportunity to attempt tasks, just as in the real world we get more than one opportunity to demonstrate that we can complete tasks successfully. Assessment over time is important also because learning is a continuous, dynamic process and ongoing assessment provides teachers with regular feed-back on students’ performance and enables them to adjust their actions accordingly.

Multiple methods of assessment such as interviews with students, group and pair work, and pencil-and-paper tests offer a more holistic picture of student learning than time bound tasks. For instance, a student’s writing ability and progress is better reflected through a writing piece that has been through several drafts than a task that has been completed in the first attempt. Also, some features of students’ performances are not apparent unless they are viewed on multiple occasions as their performance may vary across texts, tasks, and settings and be influenced by affective and cognitive factors.

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Fig.1

Just as grades, scores and teacher comments such as “excellent”, “good”, “needs to work hard” and “ rewrite” are incomprehensible to both parents and students, the teacher or assessor has no way of knowing whether the students faced any difficulty in attempting the tasks or the reason(s) behind their performance. For instance, students enrolled in an English language proficiency course performed poorly in a task that asked them to write a note with the following instructions:

You have some new neighbours. They want to know about the shops near you. Write a message for your neighbours telling them

  • who you are
  • where the shops are
  • what they can buy there

Traditional method of assessment would have only assigned a poor grade but interaction with students revealed that they found the task unrealistic as they would not write a note to their neighbours but simply share information through verbal communication. When the task was changed to one on writing an email to a friend about their favourite festival, it produced better writing and consequently better grades, and proved to be a better reflection of students’ ability. It is obvious that the students had not suddenly ‘become’ better language users but the task had provided them a better opportunity to showcase their proficiency.

Hence, students’ inability to perform a task could be due to a poorly constructed task or students’ misunderstanding of test instructions. Also, students often do not understand what is expected of them: Dave Garrison, a college junior, who when asked to give advice to his juniors about writing for their college courses, replied, ““I’d tell them,” he said, “first you’ve got to figure out what your teachers want. And then you’ve got to give it to them if you’re gonna’ get the grade.” He paused a moment and added, “And that’s not always so easy.”” (McCarthy, 1987)

This helplessness or uneasiness with teacher feedback, of what is expected of students, of what constitutes correct usage/ writing and how to produce expected answers is not usually addressed by the traditional system of assessment. Moreover, since the context, the activity and the learners are inseparable and learning is a dynamic, ongoing process, we need assessment practices that compliment the process of teaching- learning, presenting a picture that is emerging and evolving rather than an inaccurate static result. Wolf’s model of informed assessment (1993, p.520) puts it together in the following manner:

A model of informed assessment

Knowledgeable teacher

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Authentic learning activities

Conclusion

To conclude, we can only exploit tests as opportunities for teaching and continued development of our learners’ skills and language proficiency when assessment is carried out by knowledgeable teachers and assessors who involve students in meaningful dialogues and create an atmosphere of mutual trust. They draw on a variety of strategies to observe and document their students’ performances over a period of time as students are engaged in authentic learning tasks and help students to become lifelong learners by enabling them to be critical assessors of their own work.

Acknowledgements Fig 1: http://www.ioxassessment.com/index.php?cPath=24  accessed on 5 july 2011

Works Cited:

Fox. J.. Alternative Assessment: Introduction. Language Testing and Assessment 7(2008): 97-109.Print

McCarthy. L.P. ‘A Stranger in Strange Lands: A College Student Writing Across the Curriculum’. Research in the Teaching of English 21(3) (1987): 233-265. Web. 26 Oct. 2010 < http://www.jstor.org/stable/40171114 >

Wolf. K.P. ‘From Informal to Informed Assessment: Recognizing the Role of the Classroom’. Journal of Reading (1993) 36 (7):  518-523.  Web 07 Feb. 2011 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/40017401>

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Nupur Samuel is a Research Scholar at Centre for Education at the University of Delhi.

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