Aaron Campbell got me thinking on the topic of testing and assessment again today: specifically the role of testing and assessment the ESL classroom. In fact, his post along with Cleve and Aaron’s comments, opened up a thought chain that I would like to explore a little here.
Assessment on trial:
In a student centered classroom where should assessment fit in, and how should it look?
Obviously we [read: schools, teachers, students, the community] need some way of evaluating the quality of learning that is taking place both in and out of the classroom. That much is clear to me. Responsible assessment should, and needs to have a place in the ESL classroom.
But what should it look like? I’m thinking that in a student centered classroom, perhaps even in the classroom of today, we need to begin to distance ourselves from the way it has always been done. I wonder if it really is working, if assessment and standardized testing really gives us fair, reliable, and accurate information about those who take it and about how well schools and teachers are doing at teaching.
How often do students cram facts and information into their brains to just pass the test? How many forget what they crammed a few days or weeks after the exam has been written? How many actually use what they memorized for those tests outside the classroom where it really matters?
Thinking about my own classroom practice, I see this happening all the time. My students prepare for the end of unit exam, pass it with little to no problem, but fail to deploy unit material in day-to-day life.
They continue to make the same mistakes, continue to use old vocabulary - forgetting what we “learned” in class, and all this with a high 90’s average!
According to the test, learning happened. According to reality…
Assessment is necessary. The right question is “How are we doing this?” I think student centered teachers should think about portfolio work as a way to follow, assess, and evaluate learning.
Instead of memorizing and dumping information out on exams, portfolios encourage thought, application, and reflection of classroom material. They also follow a more “I can do this” method of evaluation. You can see or listen to the progress.
The Robust ESL Portfolio
The ESL portfolio can and should take on samples of a student’s developing skills, and follow them through their learning career. Portfolios should be readily accessible to student, teacher, and interested parties. They should be open conversations that develop over the long-term. They should even be paperless. Enter the porfolio blog.
What you could include:
1. Written samples: Likely the easiest sample to begin collecting. Blogs naturally lend themselves to this. Have your students blog on a regular basis about their thoughts on the class, what they understand and don’t understand, world events that matter to them and why, writing assignments that maybe would have normally be done on paper etc. I think that’s one of the keys: Get your class to blog what they would normally be asked to write about on paper. Encourage opinons. Encourage connections to other sources. Encourage commenting and linking. Encourage exploration.
2. Podcasting: Great for listening practice, but you can also use this tool to record your student’s spoken skill. Record conversations, presentations etc. and include these audio files in their portfolio. Over the time they work on their English, they should begin to see - or rather hear - a developing skill and proficiency with the language.
3. Podcasts for listening development: You could keep a bank of listenings your students have worked on in class, and their written and spoken interactions with them, that would show their ability and skill to understand what they are hearing. These listenings would grow in complexity and level of difficulty as time goes on.
4. A very similar approach could be followed for reading development. Articles, both electronic and paper based, could be kept in the student’s portfolio, along with their thoughts and interactions with them. Blogging would also lend itself greatly to this, as students could read a net based article, link to it, and comment on it in such a way as to show they understood the content, and not only understand the information presented, but add to it.
Portfolios lend themselves to being student centered. In the teacher training work I’m involved in we’re using portfolios as our main means of evalutaion. While I have specific questions I’m asking our teachers about the course work we’re dealing with, I’m opening the bulk of the process to them.
I’m encouraging them to write about what was interesting to them about what we’re working on in our PD sessions. I’m encouraging them to comment on what they are trying to implement from pd sessions in class, and how it is working. I’m asking them to reflect on their present teaching practice, and write about what is working and what isn’t, and what needs to be taken away and added.
The process has been slow and bumpy. (I’ll post on that later). However, I’m looking towards the long-term with this. I’m not looking for “instant” grade based gratification, but the development and growth of a teacher of English as a second language.
Maybe that’s a viewpoint all educators and schools need to adopt: It’s not about short term, grade based scores.[They likely aren’t all that accurate anyway.] Instead it’s about the meaningful development of a life-long learner.
A grade is short term. A portfolio describes a lifetime.