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Assessing Learning

Traditional Tests

Traditional pencil-and-paper tests ask students to read or listen to a selection and then answer questions about it, or to choose or produce a correct grammatical form or vocabulary item. Such tests can be helpful as measures of students' knowledge of language forms and their listening and reading comprehension ability.

However, instructors need to consider whether these tests are accurate reflections of authentic language use. The tests usually do not present reading comprehension and listening comprehension questions until after students have read or listened to the selection. In real life, however, people know what information they are seeking before they read or listen. That is, they have specific information gaps in mind as they begin, and those gaps define the purpose for reading or listening.

To make language tests more like authentic listening and reading activities, instructors can give students the comprehension questions before they listen to or read the selection. This procedure sets up the information gaps that students will then seek to fill as they listen or read.

Instructors also need to be careful about what pencil-and-paper tests are actually testing. A quiz on which students listen to a selection and then respond to written questions is testing reading ability as well as listening skills and will give a lower-than-appropriate score for students whose oral comprehension is stronger than their reading comprehension. A test on which students read a selection and then answer multiple-choice questions is testing their knowledge of the language used in the questions as well as that used in the selection itself. If the language used in the questions is not keyed to students' proficiency level, the test will not reflect their ability accurately.

Language instructors also encounter students who do well on pencil-and-paper tests of grammar and sentence structure, but make mistakes when using the same forms in oral interaction. In such cases, the test is indicating what students know about the language, but is not providing an accurate measure of what they are able to actually do with it.

When the goal of language instruction is the development of communicative competence, instructors can supplement (or, in some cases, replace) traditional tests with alternative assessment methods that provide more accurate measures of progress toward communication proficiency goals. This can be done by combining formative and summative types of assessment.

Summative assessment

  • Takes place at the end of a predetermined period of instruction (for example, mid-term, final)
  • Rates the student in relation to an external standard of correctness (how many right answers are given)
  • Is the approach taken by most traditional and standardized tests

Formative assessment

  • Takes place on an ongoing basis as instruction is proceeding
  • Rates the student in terms of functional ability to communicate, using criteria that the student has helped to identify
  • Helps students recognize ways of improving their learning
  • Is the approach taken by alternative assessment methods

 

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