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Authentic and Learner-Centered Assessment
Underlying the ideas about assessment presented in this paper is an assumption about the purpose of ESOL education which may seem obvious but which I nevertheless feel is worth stating since the practices of many ESOL programs and practitioners (including myself) are not always consistent with it. This assumption is that the ultimate purpose of ESOL learning is to help learners effectively use the English language to communicate for purposes that they deem to be meaningful and useful to themselves. Acceptance of this principle necessarily leads to the question of how assessment of ESOL learning can and should be linked to the authentic purposes ESOL learners have for learning English. I believe that truly useful assessment in the ESOL classroom must at the very least help both learner and teacher to identify the learners authentic purposes for learning English, to gain a clear and ongoing perspective on how the learner is progressing towards his/her purposes for learning English, and to evaluate how well learning activities used in the classroom are assisting this progress.
For our assessment strategies to accomplish these ends, they must necessarily be both authentic and learner-centered. By authentic assessment I mean assessment based on observation of how well the learner is actually able to use English for genuine communication for real-life purposes. Learner-centered assessment I will define here as assessment of learning that is either implemented by the learners themselves or, if implemented with the assistance of the teacher, is nevertheless clearly understood by the learners to be a means for understanding their own learning process, for evaluating their progress, and for evaluating the usefulness of the curriculum they are participating in and co-directing with the teacher.
Assessment that is both authentic and learner-centered is vital to good ESOL teaching/learning. Such assessment encourages learners to think about and to take responsibility for their own learning and is essential to producing curriculum that is suited to the particular needs and goals of each learner. Also, it helps learners not only to become cognizant of the fact that they are learning, if indeed they are, (this is particularly important in those cases when learners may have certain expectations about what language learning is supposed to look like which they do not see realized in their ESOL class) but to be aware of how they are moving closer, through the steps of interrelated learning activities, to fulfilling their own intrinsically-motivating purposes for learning English. Could the absence of this kind of assessment be one of the reasons for that phenomena which I am sure many adult ESOL instructors experience, namely witnessing a quiet student enter into ones ESOL program and classroom, come to class a couple times and never return? A further implication of learner-centered assessment, if it is to make learners continually cognizant of how they are learning, is that such assessment needs to be ongoing and integrated into daily classroom activity.
Having taught beginning level ESOL to adult learners in the North Carolina Community College system for several years, I have become increasingly aware of the importance of providing authentic and learner-centered assessment for my students for the reasons stated above. I have also become aware of the obstacles to implementing such assessment that ESOL teachers, and especially beginning level ESOL teachers, face in a community college setting. Therefore I chose as the goal of my action research project to explore ways for accomplishing authentic and learner-centered assessment within beginning level adult ESOL classrooms in a North Carolina Community College setting. How can this be done despite the obstacles presented by the very limited ability of many learners at this level to understand and use English and despite the open-entry/open-exit and attendance policies of North Carolina Community College system? These policies, in particular, create a challenging situation for beginning level ESOL teachers who, because of these policies, must deal with having new students with practically no English language proficiency entering their classes at any time during a term while other learners in these classes may already have made substantial progress. Under these conditions, implementing authentic and learner-centered assessment becomes enormously challenging. A certain degree of English language proficiency on the part of learners would seem to be necessary in order for learners to participate in and understand the assessment. Constant fluctuation in the student population makes it very difficult for the teacher to be consistent in the manner in which he/she assesses all of learners attending his/her class. To help answer my question, I decided I would:
1) research current literature regarding authentic and learner-centered
assessment for ESOL learners,
This paper documents the results of my project. I will first discuss some of the purposes for authentic and learner-centered assessment in ESOL education and some specific assessment tools I learned about through my research. Then I will talk about an assessment/learning activity which I designed to help my own students reflect on their purposes for learning English. I tested this in my classroom in April of 1998. I will discuss how this activity worked with my students. Finally, I will draw conclusions about the implementation of authentic and learner-centered assessment in beginning level ESOL classrooms within North Carolina Community Colleges based on my research and classroom experience.
What I Learned from My Readings on Assessment
Some Purposes for Assessment:
to determine learners real-life purposes for learning English
to assess learners language acquisition (i.e., both the language skills learners possesses as well as language abilities they still need to learn to achieve their purposes)
to assess the degree to which learners are able to effectively use English to communicate for authentic purposes both inside and outside of the classroom
to encourage learners to reflect on and take responsibility for their own learning
to give both learners and teachers a clear sense of learners progress towards learners purposes for learning English, to inform and guide learner-centered curriculum development, to assess learning styles and learning strategiesof learners in order to create learning activities that are more useful to each learner
to evaluate learning activities used in the classroom in terms of their effectiveness in promoting learner progress
All of these purposes for assessment are mutually supportive and important to optimizing English language learning for all learners that enter our ESOL programs. These purposes also all require authentic and/or learner-centered approaches to be done effectively. I chose to focus particularly on the first of these purposes, for the part of my project involving inquiry into my own classroom, because I see the process of helping learners to reflect on and determine what their purposes are for learning English as the first essential step to be taken when attempting to implement an authentic, learner-centered assessment strategy. I will describe the results of the research I accomplished in my own classroom later in this paper, but first will discuss some other authentic and/or learner- centered assessment tools that I learned of in my survey of literature on this topic.
Some Authentic and/or Learner-centered Assessment Tools:
1) Assessment of Learner Purposes for Learning English,
2) Assessment of Learner Progress towards Self-defined Purposes for Learning English and of English Language Acquisition in General,
3) Assessment of Learning Styles: Promoting Reflection on How Each Learner Learns Best, and
4) Assessment of Learning Activities.
Some of the tools can fit into more than one of these categories but I have only listed them once to avoid repetition. Most of these tools can be implemented as classroom activities but some require documentation to be done outside of class time.
1) Assessment of Learner Purposes for Learning English:
Teacher presents a picture or photograph which shows a social situation that he/she has reason to believe may be problematic for some of the learners (i.e. a code). Teacher then promotes and takes note of ensuing discussion to determine issues of importance to learners and to design future curriculum more closely suited to learner needs.
Teacher shows learners a variety of pictures and/or photographs of situations in which communication is occurring in American society. Learners choose from among these pictures those which represent situations in which they feel it is most important for them to use English. As an alternative, learners may draw their own pictures of situations in which they feel it is most important for them to be able to use English. This information is used to determine learner purposes for using English and to inform curriculum development.
Students fill out a questionnaire regarding why they want to learn English and what their goals are.
Reflections: This last activity is similar to a method for determining student goals already used at Wake Technical Community College. Wake Tech uses a check list with predetermined goals for ESOL learners to choose from goals such as Higher Level of Independent Living, Increase Daily Living Skills, Improve Reading Skills/Comprehension, Improve Communication Skills etc. The problem with this method is that it rarely gives much information to the teacher that could be useful in curriculum development. Learner responses to such surveys are always too general to be helpful in this regard. Even when learners are asked through open-ended questions on a goal setting questionnaire to identify their own goals, learners still tend to give vague responses such as to learn more English unless they receive additional guidance and support to reflect more critically about their needs and goals. This is especially true at beginning levels. For a goal setting-activity to be truly useful, especially with beginning level ESOL learners, it seems to me that it needs to be integrated into a learning activity which assists learners to understand the questions being asked of them and which guides them to reflect on and discover what their authentic needs/goals are. Also, I believe it would be helpful to teachers and learners to define these learner goals in terms of what I would call communication targets. A communication target would identify a specific kind of message the learner wants to be able to understand and/or effectively communicate as well as the social context in which the learner needs or wants to receive and/or convey this message.
2) Assessment of Learner Progress towards Self-defined Purposes for Learning English and of English Language Acquisition in General:
Learners orally (or through non-verbal means) indicate to the teacher when they dont understand something or feel they need more help in certain areas.
Reflections: This method of learner-centered assessment occurs naturally in ESOL classrooms where learners feel comfortable and where dialogue among learners and between learners and teacher is accepted and encouraged. Indeed, it is such a natural occurrence that it is often taken for granted by teachers. I, for one, did not even think of it as a form of assessment until after the research and reflection on the subject of assessment that my project involved.
Learners periodically (daily or weekly) fill out a self-assessment form indicating new words, phrases, and language structures they have learned and/or used inside and outside of class. This form should also ask learners to relate their progress in language acquisition to their communication targets and should ask learners to identify areas in which they believe they need more assistance.
Reflections: In a recent article about one ESOL programs ongoing assessment strategy, authors K. Ebbit, P. Lee, P. Nelson, and J. Wheeler wrote of a three part assessment strategy being implemented at the Community Learning Center in Cambridge and Somerville, MA. The three parts of their assessment strategy are 1) goal-setting exercises, 2) weekly written self-assessment on which learners indicate what new language abilities they believe they have learned using standardized forms developed for this purpose, and 3) a progress record which consists of a checklist filled out by students at the end of a unit and kept as a record to help learners recall what topics and language skills were covered in their class over a given period. This provides learners an opportunity to indicate whether they feel they have mastered a topic or skill to their satisfaction or whether they feel they would like to learn more about or need more practice in a certain area. Judging from the experiences which the authors describe, it would seem (as I certainly would have suspected given my own experience teaching beginning level ESOL) that the second part of this approach to assessment (i.e. the weekly written self-assessment) was the most problematic of the three, especially with low level ESOL learners, due to the excessive amount of time needed to help these learners understand the forms (both the language and the purpose of the form), and fill them out. It also seemed to me that some of the information asked for, such as What new words have you learned?, was not a particularly useful assessment of ESOL learning. Would it not be more useful to teachers and learners to also know how and in what contexts these new words were used and whether or not the learner was able to communicate effectively using these words (i.e., Communicative effectiveness is an outcome of more factors than simply the knowledge of vocabulary. Other factors that determine a persons ability to effectively communicate are pronunciation, understanding and use of appropriate language structures, understanding of cultural norms, self-confidence/assertiveness etc. and need also to be assessed to accurately evaluate the learners ability to communicate effectively in English).
Learners are periodically given formal oral and written exams which reflect themes and language taught in class over a given period of time. On a more limited scale, any cloze exercise given after introducing new vocabulary and language structures can be viewed as a mini-exam for determining how much of the information taught in the form of vocabulary, grammar and/or spelling was retained by the learners.
Reflections: It seems to me that this method could help to reinforce what learners have studied in previous classes and give both teachers and learners a better sense of what areas learners may need more practice in. For tests to do this, however, they would need to be prepared by teachers (as opposed to standardized) and be directly related to the material learners have covered before the test is given (unlike the B.E.S.T. test). My guess is that it would be challenging to implement this assessment strategy other than in the simple form of cloze exercises at the beginning level because of limited language proficiency and literacy skills of many beginning ESOL students.
LEA (Language Experience Approach) learning activities can also be viewed as assessment activities since they record learners knowledge of vocabulary and grammar at a given moment. [For more information on the Language Experience Approach see Margaret Gransees paper in this collection.]
Using a teachers observation log which may be in the form of a journal or a standardized form, the teacher takes a little time at the end of each class to take note of learners abilities and needs which learners demonstrated during class. This method may be used to assess the following:
The teacher uses a tape recorder to periodically assess each learners ability to orally communicate in English. The teacher develops a standard set of questions to ask learners at different times in the course of a semester and the resulting interviews are taped. Both teacher and learner can thus assess learner progress in English language acquisition over a period of time by listening to earlier and then later tape recordings of interviews with a given learner and noting the change in the learners ability to communicate effectively in response to the same questions.
Reflections: While this method sounds like it would be useful, it doesnt seem to lend itself to use in the beginning level ESOL classes I have taught at Wake Tech and other community colleges. The problem is that I cant afford to take time to do this with each student. The inconsistent attendance of learners further complicates things since it would require me, if I felt obligated to assess every student in like manner, to interrupt my planned learning activity whenever a learner that needed to be assessed happened to show up in class in order to take time to interview and tape him/her. This method might be more viable if I had a regular teachers aide to help (the one intake person at most of Wake Techs larger off-campus adult learning sites might be able to help with this but they seem to me to already be overworked).
3) Assessment of Learning Styles: Promoting Reflection on How Each Learner Learns Best:
Group Activity: The class is divided into two groups. One group is asked to complete the phrase Its easy to learn when.... The other group is asked to complete the phrase Its hard to learn when.... Ideas which come up in each groups discussion are then shared with the whole class. Teacher promotes discussion of the responses each small group generated. (Adventures in Assessment, Vol. 4)
Reflections: This activity may work well to encourage learners to begin to think about their own learning, about how they learn best, and also give the teacher information about students learning styles as well as feedback regarding which kinds of learning activities are most useful for which students. However, this activity would require of beginning ESOL learners a degree of proficiency in English that they probably would not acquire until they are ready to move to a higher level of ESOL learning.
4) Assessment of Learning Activities:
Learners respond to a questionnaire regarding which of the learning activities in their class are working and which are not working for them. This questionnaire would be filled out regularly (i.e. daily or weekly) by learners.
As a regular class ritual, the teacher takes a period of time at the end of each class to ask learners what they learned today, which learning activities were most useful for them, what they liked and disliked about the class, what else they want to learn, etc. The teacher takes note of learner responses. Once taking time to get this kind of feedback from learners becomes an established routine learners will feel more comfortable with giving feedback and move from everything is fine to I would like to see [blank] in class. (Gear, p. 47)
My Classroom Experience: One Assessment/Learning Activity for Determining Learner Purposes for Learning English
I was teaching a Beginning level ESOL class and was about halfway through the spring term of classes at Wake Technical Community College when I decided to see if my learners had acquired enough English to be able to engage in some meaningful dialogue about what was important to them in their lives and to what purposes for communicating in English they gave highest priority. I designed an assessment/learning activity which I entitled What is important? On the night I tried out this activity, I had nine students in attendance. Of these nine, seven were regulars, one was a student who sporadically attended, and one had come to my class for the first time. Seven of the nine were from Mexico, one was from Iran, and one from Vietnam.
I began the activity by writing the question on my overhead projector, What is important? After spending some time explaining the meaning of important (for the sake of one student who didnt understand the word), I drew a picture of a plant and asked the class to identify what it was. Then I drew a sun shining on the plant and a rain cloud raining on the plant and asked the class, Is the sun important for the plant? and Is the rain important for the plant? Everyone agreed that both the sun and the rain were important for the plant. Then I replaced the picture of the plant with a human stick figure and asked them to tell me what it was. One student said people. I introduced the word human being explaining that it had the same meaning as a person or somebody.
I then posed the question, What is important for human beings? Quite an extensive list of things important for people was generated by the class which I copied down on the chalkboard. Among the examples offered by my students of things they believed to be important for human beings were:
sun, water, food, oxygen, other animals, family, job, tools [such as computer, car], money, education, understanding/communication, culture, good character, religion, recreation, health [exercise, medicine, doctors, good air, good water, good food], transportation, God.
When asked, What is more important, job or family?, everyone agreed that family was more important. I asked a few more questions contrasting the relative importance of pairs of the important things from the list my students had generated. These questions generated some discussion and my students were able to come to agreement on answers to each question. Finally, I asked What is the most important? One of my students responded that God was most important because everything else on our list of important things came from God. The rest of the class agreed.
At this point, after having contemplated what is of ultimate importance to human beings, the learners were ready to contemplate what the importance of learning English was for them personally. I posed a new question, Why is it important FOR YOU to speak, read and write English? I emphasized FOR YOU as I asked each individual student to give their own answer to this question. The students brain-stormed and I listed their responses on the chalkboard. Their responses were as follows:
to communicate, shopping [food, clothes, shoes, car], work, doctor, church, hospital, telephone, telephone bill, looking for work, to progress in your job, to go to the post office, immigration, renting an apartment, to learn more about life, to express my ideas/to talk about my ideas, transportation [airport, taxi, bus, go to car mechanic], recreation [to visit the zoo, to go to the movies], to learn more about US culture and history, go to court, lawyer.
When the class seemed to have exhausted its ideas, I asked each student individually to pick one or two of the purposes for learning from the list which they felt were the MOST important for them personally. The result was that work and to express my ideas both received the highest number of votes (with four votes each) followed by shopping and doctor (with two votes each) followed by hospital, telephone, telephone bill, looking for work, renting an apartment, immigration, to learn more about life, recreation, to learn more about US culture and history each of which received a single vote.
My learners all seemed to enjoy and participate enthusiastically in this activity. When one student asked me with a smile, Why is this important for you? (referring to this lesson), I answered, So I can teach you better. So I can teach you what you need. This statement regarding the purpose of this activity resulted in further smiles from students. In retrospect I see that one way in which this activity failed is that at the end of the activity each student did not have an individual list of specific goals they wanted to work towards. I found it challenging to both facilitate the activity and at the same time keep note of what purposes for learning English were important to which individual students and I was not able to recall after the lesson all of the particular goals of each individual learner. I was able to record, by copying down the student-generated lists that I had copied onto the chalkboard, which purposes were of greatest importance to the class as whole. This information in itself was valuable to guide my future curriculum development. Having an aide or volunteer in the classroom during this activity to record each students individual responses might have helped me end up also with a record of individual goals/needs. Another possibility which I had not considered but which I will try in the future is to have students write down their votes for their most important purposes for learning English and collect these at the end of the activity.
To best serve adult ESOL learners, an ESOL teacher needs to acquire the kind of information about each of his/her learners that ongoing authentic and learner-centered assessment can best provide. Upon acquiring this information, it furthermore needs to be shared with and understood by learners and used to guide subsequent curriculum development. Such assessment should not be viewed as separate from learning but rather should, on a regular basis, be integrated into learning activities. It should identify and measure learners progress towards their self-defined, real life needs and purposes for learning English. Authentic and learner-centered assessment involves such obvious practices as noticing and appropriately responding to the apparent confusion, the silence or the questions of learners and further involves teachers taking note of learnersresponses to learning activities, noticing how each learner learns best, paying attention to learners use of the English language as well as to the questions they ask and concerns they express. Perhaps most importantly, such assessment also necessarily involves, and indeed is based on, dialogue between teachers and learners. Such dialogue should eventually cause learners to become accustomed to monitoring and managing their own learning rather than relying entirely on their teacher to do this for them.
The LEIS forms and the BEST test currently in use at Wake Technical Community College do not meet the criteria mentioned above. More authentic and learner-centered assessment provided on an ongoing basis would clearly be preferable, but before a comprehensive, ongoing, authentic and learner-centered strategy for assessment can be implemented in the North Carolina Community College setting, the status of ESOL teachers within the North Carolina Community College System in my opinion would have to change. Currently, the task of implementing authentic and learner-centered assessment in a comprehensive manner would, I believe, prove unmanageable for most of the ESOL teachers in North Carolinas Community College System who are, as far as I am aware, all part-time teachers who do not receive pay for their class preparation time much less for the amount of extra time it would take them to implement a more ideal system of assessment. On the other hand, if teachers were paid for class preparation time, then they could be expected to implement their own comprehensive assessment plan in their classrooms using authentic and learner-centered approaches (including perhaps some of the assessment tools described in this paper) and could justifiably be held accountable for doing so. Barring such a change in the North Carolina Community College Systems policies, the ongoing use of authentic and learner-centered approaches to assessment in North Carolina community college ESOL classrooms I am sure will remain the exception rather than the rule.
North Carolina Community Colleges open-entry/open-exit policy presents a further obstacle to implementing the kind of meaningful assessment of adult ESOL learners this paper proposes, and, as I have explained earlier, this is most especially true in beginning level ESOL classes. Because this policy allows new students to enter classes at any time during a term, there is almost never a time when every student attending a given beginning level ESOL class has acquired sufficient English to understand and participate in regular, learner-centered assessment.
Despite these systemic obstacles, I believe ESOL teachers in community college settings can and should try to find creative ways to provide authentic and learner-centered assessment for their learners. While this probably can not be done as consistently and comprehensively as would be ideal given the institutional constraints these teachers work under, the more it can be provided to our ESOL learners, even to a small degree, the better these learners will be served. Informal forms of assessment such as teacher observations of learners authentic use of English in the classroom and of student verbal and nonverbal responses to learning activities are perhaps the most viable means of authentic assessment that beginning level ESOL community college teachers can implement in their classrooms. Some initial learning activity for assessing learners specific purposes for learning English (i.e. communication targets) that involves dialogue with and reflection on the part of learners is also very important but again, given the inconsistent attendance of learners and the limited English language proficiency of beginning level ESOL learners in our community college ESOL classrooms, it would be difficult for beginning level adult ESOL teachers to provide this kind of assessment consistently for all the students who choose to enter their classrooms at a North Carolina community college throughout the course of a given term.
In conclusion, authentic and learner-centered assessment is vitally important to learners, teachers and stakeholders in the process of ESOL education. Such assessment is important to learners in that it helps them clarify their needs and goals for learning English, gives them a sense of their progress towards these goals which they are intrinsically motivated to attain, and helps them evaluate and take responsibility for their own learning. It is important to teachers in designing, and continually re-evaluating the effectiveness of learner-centered curriculum that genuinely meets learner needs and helps them progress toward their goals. It is important for administrators, funders and policy-makers in that it can help them gain a more realistic picture of how the real outcomes and effectiveness of ESOL programs can best be measured. My hope is that ESOL learners, practitioners, and stakeholders in North Carolina may work together towards better serving the ESOL learners in our state by engaging in an ongoing evaluation of our assessment practices and making the institutional changes needed to encourage the implementation of truly useful, authentic and learner-centered assessment in our adult ESOL classrooms.
Ebbit, Karen, Lee, Priscilla, Nelson, Pam and Joann Wheeler. Three by Three by Four: Ongoing Assessment at the Community Learning Center, Adventures in Assessment, Vol. 2, p. 49-57.
Group Goal Setting Activities: An Approach from Youth Service Corps, Adventures in Assessment, Vol. 4, p.10-11.
Gear, Caroline. Implementing Authentic Assessment: One Programs Perspective, Adventures in Assessment, Vol. 8, p. 47.
Tudor, Ian. Learner-centeredness as Language Education, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Nash, A., A. Cason, M. Rhum, L. McGrail, and R. Gomez-Sanford. Talking Shop:
A Curriculum Sourcebook for Participatory Adult ESL. McHenry, IL: Delta Systems and Center for Applied Linguistics, 1992.
Adventures in Assessment, Vols. 2, 4, 8, 10.
Reprinted from Building Together: The Inquiry Writings, The North Carolina Adult ESOL Curriculum Frameworks Inquiry Project, Literacy South, 1998, (919) 682-8108
Originally published in Adventures in Assessment, Volume 11 (Winter 1998),
Funding support for the publication of this document on the Web provided in part by the Ohio State Literacy Resource Center as part of the LINCS Assessment Special Collection.
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