New Year resolutions – testing … our resolve to learn more about language assessment!
In our first post in this series, we introduced (or re-introduced) the concept of “language assessment literacy” and invited readers to briefly reflect on their current assessment practices and tools and think about the importance of analysing the different types of assessment available and the appropriacy, advantages and overall validity of each, depending on different scenarios, and on just what we want to measure… and why. We offered some initial pointers as to how and where teachers might find opportunities, both individually and collectively, to further their training and development in this area.
At the start of this new calendar year and mirroring the New Year´s resolutions many of us may have undertaken now in our personal lives, the month of January seems like an appropriate time to re-visit and expand on the brief overview we provided back in the Autumn and showcase some more resources and training and development opportunities now available to us. But beyond that, this post lays down a challenge or, if you prefer, an invitation, to commit to 3 professional resolutions this year – on a term-by-term basis.
Resolution 1 – Spring term – to work on 3 specific steps between now and Easter to get the basic knowledge and tools to kickstart your own LAL learning journey
Before we begin though, let´s just remember a couple of popular expressions: “don’t dive straight in at the deep end”, and make sure you “start from the ground up” (or as that wonderful Spanish expression goes: “don´t begin the house with the roof”!) So before ambitiously asking your school, for example, to subscribe to one of the excellent but sometimes quite daunting professionals journals, such as Language Assessment Quarterly, or to send you off to an international conference or on a postgraduate university programme in language testing, why not “dip your toe in the water” with a free online introductory course to assessment such as the British Council´s MOOC “Language Assessment in the Classroom” on the Future Learn platform?
Hopefully this will whet your appetite for more and get you over the first hurdle, especially if you do it together with other colleagues. If not, it is all too easy to be initially put off by quite complex academic papers and the unfamiliar “jargon” they use, although it is refreshing to see researchers themselves now acknowledging they have a wider audience by providing more clearer and simpler guidance and definitions to key terminology. Kathryn Hill (2017), among others, attempts to remove some of the mystique of LAL by defining key terms such as content validity as simply “whether an appropriate balance of different aspects of the curriculum is represented in assessment” or construct relevance as whether “the skills, knowledge and behaviours comprising the focus of assessment are consistent with the intended learnings”. This is certainly a lot clearer and more helpful to teachers. Along the same lines, a handy reference tool to additionally have to hand to clarify the terminology and concepts, also from the British Council, is a free downloadable A-Z of Second Language Assessment guide. Download this as step 2 for this term.
Once you start feeling a bit more confident about the basics and keen to know more about specific areas of assessment, this could then be the ideal time to move on to taking a weekly look, with your colleagues, at some free websites such as Glenn Fulcher´s excellent Language Testing Resources Website, with each member of the group reporting back on a specific article or resource on the site and more importantly, sharing ideas about how they might be adapted to your own classes.
Resolution 2 –Summer term – to get “connected” to language assessment associations and organisations
Until very recently there was clearly a lack of good, structured and/or affordable training in this field on offer. Tsagari and Vogt (2017) observed that “teachers seem to learn about LTA (Language Testing and Assessment) on the job, they rely on mentors, colleagues and published assessment materials in order to survive”. While agreeing with their opinion that most teachers get very little specific pre-service or even in-house training in assessment, it could be seen as rather more arguable that many will actually have “mentors” to contact and guide them, or generous resource libraries at their schools to access published materials, beyond specific test preparation coursebooks and sample tests.
So how can we get access to or hook up with mentors or experts outside our own schools themselves? Well the summer term is traditionally one of the key conference seasons, and so this is where the “power of association” comes in, and involves taking advantage of the ever increasing resources language teaching and testing associations offer in the way of both F2F and online training, whether locally or further afield. As above in the previous term´s resolution, these don´t need to involve any major budget, in fact they don´t actually require any budget at all, if there´s no budget available. We would all love to be able to get over to Liverpool or Dublin in the coming months, to personally attend international conferences like IATEFL or EALTA, hosted respectively in April and June by those two great cities. But if it´s simply impossible to find the time or money to do so, or get the backing of your school, remember now that there is increasing live streaming of key plenaries and talks and look out for these by following these associations, for example on social media. Even better, different associations now commonly upload these presentations to their websites. Here is just one example, from the 2018 EALTA conference, and an interesting talk given by John de Jong (and sponsored by Pearson) on automating scoring:
Resolution 3: Autumn term – to take a more in-depth and now better- informed look at the assessments you´ve used during the year to be able to critically compare them to other options or assessment frameworks – your “2020 vision”
Once we´ve got a clearer idea of what´s available to us in terms of initial training and development and hopefully clearer criteria to make decisions, then comes the time to take a much closer look at the actual assessments we use. So this is where the third part of this challenge comes in. Like anything else, at least once a year it´s always a good exercise to question what you use and why, in this case looking at the tests you set or recommend. Have you ever investigated what the test developers or testing organisations actually say about their tests, and the insights and full range of documents they themselves provide you with? Only then will you be able to understand them more fully, weigh up your options and decide what best matches your students´ needs, your syllabus, and your own approach to and ideas about assessment which you will have steadily been forming over the previous 2 terms (if you´ve managed to stick to your first two resolutions!), by seeking to really get to know the tests “inside out” and analyse them from different angles. How and why were they developed? What were they originally intended to be used for? (This is not always the same as why some teachers/schools use them!). What item types and tasks are included and why? How exactly are they scored/what are the evaluation criteria? Although they are not always easy to find or in some cases not even published for direct teacher access, most testing organisations will normally publish documents called “specifications”, and/or detailed level-by-level test guides, as is the case with PTE General, e.g. this one at L3 (B2). These will help gain a vision from the inside, but above all they are vital to really help see just how far your assessment practices and tests fit in with the” bigger picture” of ensuring we are putting our students first and fulfilling the definitive challenge of delivering what has been called true “learner-oriented assessment” (LOA). In a recent paper, Green (2017) was reluctantly forced to admit that “what was missing from the free teacher resources” (offered by the particular leading awarding body under study) “was any indication of how the tasks mapped onto broader learning objectives or longer term language learning needs rather than the immediate imperative to pass the examination.” Let´s see if as a teaching and testing community we can all resolve to work more closely together over the course of the year and beyond, and that through this enhanced assessment literacy we can develop assessment practices and materials that meet these ultimate longer-term goals.
Teacher assessment literacy in second and foreign language education. Papers in Language Testing and Assessment Vol. 6, Issue 1. (Special issue). 2017.
Green, A. (2017) Learning-oriented Language Test Preparation Materials: A contradiction in terms? 112-132
Hill, K. (2017). Understanding Classroom-based Assessment Practices: A Precondition for Teacher Assessment Literacy. pp.1-17.
Tsagari, D. & Vogt, K. (2017). Assessment literacy of foreign language teachers around Europe: Research, challenges and future prospects.41-63