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  • Alison Davis

Challenges of Assessing ESL Learners


Assessment can be the cause of great anxiety in the ESL classroom, for teachers, students and parents. Despite the anxiety, as educators, we know the range of assessment tools used throughout the year are valuable tools in forming opinions and summarizing learning. We should help our students to be confident in all types of assessments and explain that the feedback from each assessment will help make their learning more need-oriented.

Many of the assessments used in an ESL classroom are based on written tests that measure what a learner can memorize or recall. In many cultures, these high stakes tests –and the resulting scores - are highly valued and given precedence over the more useful assessments educators use to inform their planning and transform instruction. For some, the focus for learning is on the product, rather than the process of learning.

Traditional classroom testing procedures can cause some learners test anxiety. Children need to learn and be evaluated in safe learning environments where assessment is integrated in the teaching and learning process of daily instruction.

Some written tests have challenging instructions which require the learner to decipher or decode what the question is asking - rather than assessing the specific behaviors, skills or knowledge. If the reading age of the instructions for tests is above the achievement level of the test-taker, the learner is at a disadvantage and the information provided unhelpful for both the learner and their teacher.

Some tests focus only on mastery of specific language skills and linguistic accuracy, rather than on what the learner can say or do independently. Many tests have little opportunity for communicative competence, with test items typically consisting of matching, recalling or gap-filling. For example, a vocabulary test often asks the learner to match one meaning of a word, rather than assessing if the learner can use that word in an authentic context.

Performance-based assessments - where students perform real tasks using spoken or written language - are more authentic assessments of what the learner knows and can do. Retelling what they understand from a written text is a more accurate assessment than a multiple choice question of literal comprehension, Performance assessments such as oral reports or writing samples demonstrate how a learner can use language for different purposes.

Performance tasks, observational records, checklists of behaviors and interviews more accurately track language development. These provide feedback to the learner and the teacher about what needs to be learned (curriculum) and the instructional methods and materials to best support the learner. It shows improvement over time and demonstrates in a concrete way that learners are making real progress in their linguistic development, this encourages students to do more and supports the teacher to work on refining the process of learning rather than its product.

For our ESL educators knowing how to assess students in order to improve instruction is the key in a learner-centred classroom. As Maya Angelou said: “When you know better, you do better.”

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