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Assessment in Language Learning

As you read the anecdote below, reflect on the guidelines for assessment that the teacher is following.

English language learners in Ms. Hagerty’s seventh- and eighth-grade class are working on the design of historical books that they will then produce using Wixie (see chapter 6). Student teams have each chosen a figure from U.S. history, which they have downloaded from US History Images (http://ushistoryimages.com/), to research and about whom they will construct a first-person narrative. The goal is to distill the most useful and important facts about the figure’s life.

Each book will be a minimum of five pages long and will include text, graphics, and narration. Each project must use as resources at least three books, two websites (with justification for accuracy of the materials), and one other resource. After deciding which tasks the activity will involve, team members divide the tasks among themselves.

As team members work individually or together to complete their tasks, Ms. Hagerty walks around the room, observing, asking questions, and providing feedback when necessary. She notices that communication for one team has broken down, and she facilitates a discussion that helps the members get back on track. One student searching for information on the web about her team’s character seems to be stymied by the number of hits she has received in her electronic search, so the teacher helps the student reflect on how she might solve this problem. At the end of the class period, Ms. Hagerty asks students to comment on any problems that they had, how they progressed during the period, and what their plan is for completing the project. She also asks them to write several sentences about what they have learned about the figure they are investigating.

►Overview of Assessment in Language Learning

Assessment is one of the most important aspects of language teaching and learning. Assessment has two main purposes: to make summative evaluations and to provide instructional feedback to help learners progress. Both summative and formative assessments can be formal (standardized) or informal (classroom-based). Informally, assessment provides feedback from peers and others; formally, it provides information against a standard about how the student is progressing in specific areas. Depending on the stakes, everyone can be involved in assessment—peers, teacher, self, administrators, and external constituents; however, teachers, as immediate catalysts of the learning process, should be particularly involved and well-informed about assessment practices. TTS-LT (Healey et al., 2011) standards for Goal 3 and the ISTE standards (ISTE, 2018, see standard 7 for educators) both consider teachers’ access to and understanding of different assessment tools and practices as important competencies to develop.

Assessment supports CALL principles if it is interactive, formative, and authentic. Although standardized testing has become increasingly more intrusive for language teachers, much has been written and continues to be written about this topic; therefore, in this chapter we address classroom-based assessments.

Both language educators and educational researchers agree that assessment practices need to be authentic (Frey, Schmitt, & Allen, 2012).Although what authenticity translates to has been the subject of many discussions, in this text, its meaning is in line with task engagement principles–learners perceive the assessment measure as connected to their lives and it measures what it says it does. For a measure to be authentic, students should perceive it as related to their lives and/or goals in topic, form, content, process, or any element they consider related. As Gulikers, Bastiaens, and Kirschner (2004) assert, such assessment requires “students to use the same competencies, or combinations of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that they need to apply in the criterion situation in professional life” (p. 69). According to Frey et al. (2012), such assessment is,

  • formative and collaborative
  • rubric-scored, student-developed, and mastery-based
  • contextually realistic, performance-based, and complex  (p. 5)

Accordingly, authentic assessment will not only serve as a representative picture of student’s competencies, but also as a learning tool.

According to Litchfield and Dempsey (2015), through authentic assessment, students tend to

  • apply knowledge rather than memorize the information
  • develop more in-depth learning
  • develop metacognitive strategies
  • develop critical thinking and problem solving skills
  • be engaged in the activity through meaningful, interesting,and collaborative activities
  • be more confident, satisfied, and active in the learning process.

Of course, among all the features of authentic assessment, contextual realisticness may be the most difficult to implement. It means, for example, that grammar learned in context should not be tested out of context, and that science content knowledge acquired through experimenting should be assessed in the same situation through various techniques. Examples of possible authentic assessment techniques are verbal reporting, observation, retelling, graphic organizers, role-plays, journals, portfolios, and self-assessment. Although these guidelines and examples may make the assessment process in language classrooms seem rather simple, in reality it can be quite complex. This is particularly true for CALL classrooms, where technology use may be an additional factor in the assessment.

How are computers used in assessment in CALL classrooms? Generally they are used in three ways. First, computers are used to perform the actual assessment or to help carry out assessment. For example, some CALL software programs can assess learners based on the number of questions they answer correctly. In addition, computers can help in assessment by allowing learners to post their products to the Web for feedback or send their output electronically to experts to evaluate. Comments from external evaluators can then be counted for part of the project grade. Furthermore, the computer can be used to create rubrics and record observations and reflections. They can also help teachers and students keep a running total of points earned and function as a tool during assessments to help the teacher record, weigh, summarize, and report on student progress. Examples of commonly used assessment tools include computer-based tests (described later in this chapter), spreadsheets, grading programs, test-making software (e.g., Schoolhouse Test 4, ver. 4.1), online applications (e.g., Online Exam Builder at https://www.onlineexambuilder.com/), rubric-making software (e.g., Rubric Maker at https://rubric-maker.com/), and many iOS- and Android-based applications such as GoClass (https://www.goclass.com/), Nearpod (http://nearpod.com), and Playposit (http://playposit.com). Likewise, all learning management systems such as Canvas (https://www.canvaslms.com/), Blackboard (http://www.blackboard.com/), and Moodle (http://moodle.com) have their own assessment tools.

Second, teachers assess the product and process of the students’ work with and through the computer. In other words, computer-enhanced tasks that students complete and the work processes that they use while completing the tasks can be assessed. (Unless the goal of the task is to learn computer skills, such skills should not be a focus of assessment.) The assessment focus is the same as that for language learning tasks that are produced with other tools. However, because CALL projects may have multiple components (sound, visuals, text, graphics, etc.), assessing a multimedia presentation developed in a team may require the teacher to consider and evaluate criteria that would not be used to evaluate a printed essay. (This idea is discussed in more depth in the section on rubrics.)

Third, computers can create a VIE (see chapter 3) in which students or test takers can be assessed more authentically. In other words, the computer can simulate a real-life situation via high-fidelity graphical 3D technologies where a contextualized response from the test taker can be elicited. For instance, if a student’s greeting skills need to be assessed, a VIE can create an immersive context where the test taker meets virtual characters in a simulated real-life venue, such as a restaurant, and needs to react to the situation (see VWs and MMOGs in Chapter 4 and 6). Figure 8.1 presents a simulated 3D image of a skull with which students can interact via a Leap Motion Controller (https://www.leapmotion.com/), dissecting it virtually (watch video of this interaction at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H_Ik29kpKB4). This interaction can contextualize the assessment task in, for instance, a content-based language classroom where the language is a vehicle for content learning (Crandall & Kaufman, 2002; also see chapter 7).

Figure 8.1. Dissecting a skull in VITaL at Washington State University

In this chapter’s opening scenario, while students work on their CALL project, Ms. Hagerty uses many informal assessments to evaluate her language learners’ language and content processes. She observes, discusses, and encourages students to reflect on both process and product. Later in the project, she and her learners will develop a rubric for evaluating the project outcomes and an assessment for measuring content and language gains.

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Assessment in Language Learning by Joy Egbert and Seyed Abdollah Shahrokni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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