In this part of the best practices series, we will examine assessment and the many manifestations it takes. Assessment is not limited to traditional testing. It includes programmatic and student needs analysis, alternative approaches to evaluating learning and student self-reflection.

Traditional placement testing vs. alternative placement assessment

Best practices research indicates that traditional placement tests do learners an injustice because they are "for the purpose of sorting people into groups and predicting their future performance," according to K.O. Yap. John Macalister and I.S.P. Nation caution, "Placement tests need continual monitoring to make sure that they are doing their job properly. ... It is worth setting aside time soon after to review their performance so that they can be improved before the next administration."

Instead, a learners' needs assessment — including learners' "wants, needs, and expectations" is requisite information for educators so educators can "tailor instruction to learners’ requirements," Dennis Sjolie writes.

Nation and Macalister concur: "The aim of (needs analysis) is to discover what needs to be learned and what the learners want to learn." Both needs assessment and reconceptualizing how needs assessment is conducted are essential.

C.T. Linse asks why ESL students must be "identified and placed in ESL (classes) based on the native language(s) they speak," and Sjolie wonders why ESL students must be "placed according to tests scores that have nothing to do with students' personalities, experiences or goals."

Diane Strong-Krause observes that while placing students in "appropriate language classes is essential and traditionally accomplished by using some combination of objective exams, essay exams and oral interviews," such a process of placement can be costly in terms of both money and time.

It is expensive to develop and print tests, and it takes a great amount of personnel time to administer and grade the tests, particularly speaking and writing tests. An alternative approach is the use of self-assessment questionnaires in combination with, or in place of, these traditional exams.

As Strong-Krause notes, Shrauger and Osberg "reported that self-ratings seemed to predict academic achievement at least as well as other, more traditional assessments." Further, LeBlanc and Painchaud determined that the self-assessment tool they used "placed students just as well as the formal placement test they had been using, with fewer changes in classes being reported using the self-assessment instrument."

Other researchers caution that research shows that students with lower levels of language competence will "overestimate their language abilities, whereas more proficient students tend to underestimate their abilities."

Another factor affecting appropriate placement has to do with the skill being assessed, but Pierce, Swain and Hart assert, "the more specific and focused a self-assessment instrument is, the greater likelihood that there will be higher correlations with objective measures of proficiency."

Strong-Krause designed and developed her own self-assessment placement study at Brigham Young University's English Language Center, "an intensive English as a second language program." The students in the study spoke Spanish, Japanese or Korean, and students were both male and female.

"One of the main purposes of this study was to determine which types of tasks on a self-assessment instrument should be used in order to best predict placement into a second language course," Strong-Krause wrote. Her findings suggest that there are necessary guidelines that must be followed if self-assessment for placement is to be successful.

She offers a few cautionary notes, but ultimately, she asserts, "The principle implication is that self-assessment instruments, if developed and used appropriately, may indeed be useful to reduce the costs of placement and at the same time be a viable source of information about a student‘s language proficiency."

Sjolie implores curriculum designers to conduct an initial needs assessment that gathers and purposefully employs students' histories connected to "education, culture, personal characteristics, likes, dislikes, knowledge and present language ability" in an effort to construct a "flexible, adaptive, non-stagnant" curriculum.

Gathering and purposefully using learners' histories is the first step in constructing a curriculum that "far exceeds the all-too-fixed curriculum that relies on the all-too-typical levels-based curriculum." As Sjolie observes, "Real language teaching is more than language processing geared to any one specified level."

H.D. Brown concurs that initial needs analysis and continuous monitoring are key to curricular development and refers to Jack C. Richards, who suggests beginning with a situational needs analysis, one that includes the "socioeconomic and educational backgrounds of the students, the specific purposes the students have in learning a language, and institutional constraints that are imposed on a curriculum."

Kathleen Graves identifies two types of learners' needs assessment — objective needs and subjective needs. She asserts that conducting both and then purposefully analyzing and using the results are essential if educators are to best meet students' needs.

Objective needs, according to Geoffrey Brindley, are "derivable from different kinds of factual information about learners, their use of language in real-life communication situations as well as their current language proficiency and difficulties."

Graves echoes Sjolie, Linse, Yap and Weddel: "Objective needs (include) information about students' backgrounds — country, culture, education, family, profession, age, languages spoken and so on; students' abilities or proficiency in speaking, understanding, reading and writing English; and students' needs with respect to how they will use or deal with English outside of the classroom."

Subjective needs, Brindley observes, are "the cognitive and affective needs of the learner in the learning situation, derivable from information about affective and cognitive factors such as personality, confidence, attitudes, learners' wants and expectations with regard to the learning of English and their individual cognitive and learning strategies."

Included in subjective needs are learners' attitudes about the non-native language (in this case, English) and culture they are learning; about themselves as learners and about learning; about their own expectations of themselves as learners and of the courses they are taking; about the reasons they are studying English; and about their preferred learning styles and strategies.

Learners' needs assessments come in many forms, and the more information instructors can glean from their students, the better it will be for helping students achieve their goals. Graves notes that needs analyses should tap all stakeholders — teachers, funders, parents, administration and employers and she suggests that students' future professors should be asked what "students will be expected to read, research and present."

Literacy autobiographies as needs inventory

One type of needs inventory is the literacy autobiography what Linda Steinman calls "a reflective account of one's own development as a writing being" and it includes the many aspects of literacy development (i.e., reading, writing and culture), not just writing.

A literacy autobiography provides educators with an essential account of students' literacy history "whether broad and deep or narrow and superficial," which gives instructors the insight they need to adapt their teaching strategies and the course content to encourage student achievement.

Likewise, because literacy autobiographies are reflective, they offer students the opportunity to self-assess their strengths and weaknesses and understand the areas to which they must pay particular attention in order to improve. Literacy autobiographies come in many forms: they can be written, spoken and digitally recorded, and illustrated.

Having students use a variety of documentation techniques taps students' learning styles, which neuroscience and best practices pedagogy supports and encourages. Among others, Steinman, Larrotta, Lathem, Reyes and Qi provide details about how to design and implement literacy autobiographies.

Traditional vs. alternative assessment

Language assessment can be tricky. Just as the best curriculum design is predicated on thorough needs analyses and continuous monitoring, the best approach to language assessment begins with needs analysis and objectives and goals setting. However, all language assessment is not created equal.

Increasingly, summative assessment, if it is the primary and/or sole form of evaluation, is indefensible.

"The primary purpose of a language assessment is to collect information to help (teachers) make decisions about test takers (in this case, learners), and the attribute of test takers that is of primary interest in language assessment is language ability," write Lyle F. Bachman and Adrian Palmer.

Language assessment should measure proficiency in real language situations.

Traditional (fixed point or summative) assessment

Best practices research emphasizes the need for authenticity in language learning, yet traditional assessment contravenes authenticity.

"Fixed point assessment is when grades are awarded and decisions made on the basis of an examination or other assessment which takes place on a particular day, usually at the end of the course or before the beginning of a course. What has happened beforehand is irrelevant; it is what the person can do now that is decisive," according to the Council of Europe.

There is a host of best practices research that warns against summative assessment, particularly as the only form of evaluation. Critics observe, "Traditional testing methods like cloze tests, multiple choice exams and fill in the blanks ... do not measure real language use in realistic settings" ( and "the notion that evaluation must be confined to summative, end-of-term or end-of-unit tests alone is vanishing" (H.D. Brown).

Sjolie observes that "a great deal of language testing is of a very poor quality ... too often (language tests) fail to measure accurately whatever it is they are intended to measure."

Alternative assessment: Formative (continuous) assessment & communicative assessment

Just as there is significant criticism of summative assessment, there is significant advocacy of alternative assessments, particularly formative assessment in the form of portfolios (not limited to writing) and critical reflection. Because alternative assessment is holistic and continuous, both learners and educators have an authentic perspective on the learners‘ progress and the effectiveness of the teaching strategies.

Herman, Achsbacher and Winters define alternative assessments as those "alternative to conventional, multiple-choice testing. These include alternative assessment, authentic assessment and performance-based assessment."

Brown's perspective mirrors Herman et al.: Formative evaluation/assessment is the "ongoing assessment of a student's performance as a course progresses" and includes "performance-based assessment, portfolio development, oral production inventories, cooperative student-student techniques, and other authentic testing rubrics."

The Council of Europe stresses the need for alternative and continuous assessment: "Continuous assessment is assessment by the teacher and possibly by the learner of class performances, pieces of work and projects throughout the course. The final grade thus reflects the whole course/year/semester and 'continuous assessment implies assessment which is integrated into the course and which contributes in some cumulative way to the assessment at the end of the course.'"

M.A. Christison understands the need for alternative assessment especially when accounting for students' individual multiple intelligences and learning styles: "Are your methods of assessment balanced for the different intelligences? What is the relationship between your language-learning activities and your methods of assessment? ... It is important to offer several different options for assessment and allow students to choose from two or three alternatives."

Christison observes that when her students have been given this choice, they "have come up with wonderful and creative ways to show what they know about the subject."

White observes that there is a "wide gap" between what institutional governing bodies and faculty define as "good assessment" and argues that test developers and administrators find (the following) characteristics essential:

  • Assessment that produces scores quickly and cheaply.
  • Assessment that reduces the complexity of writing and the teaching of writing but allows for data collected to imply complex measurement.
  • Assessment that heavily weighs surface features of writing and dialect features of edited American English.
  • Assessment that leads to the sorting of students according to existing social patterns.
  • Assessment whose meaning depends heavily on statistical explanations of sufficient complexity to invite misuse of scores.

White continues that "the majority of writing teachers" value:

  • Assessment that supports teachers' work or at least does not deny it importance.
  • Assessment that recognizes the complexity of writing and of the teaching of writing.
  • Assessment the respects teachers as professionals and theirs students as individuals.
  • Assessment that will not be misused to provide simple, damaging and misleading information.

Once again, we see the need for formative assessment. Deborah Crusan encourages teachers to conduct a needs analysis, asking, "Who are my students? What are their specific needs? For what purpose(s) am I assessing them?"

Her book, part of the Michigan Series on Teaching Multilingual Writers, includes the particularly important chapters "Designing Assignments and Rubrics," (which includes a portfolio rubric) and "Biases in Writing Assessment: What Are They and What Can We Do about Them?"

Common characteristics of alternative assessment

  • Ask students to perform, create, produce or do something.
  • Tap higher-level thinking and problem-solving skills.
  • Use tasks that represent meaningful instructional activities.
  • Invoke real-world applications.
  • People, not machines, do the scoring, using human judgment.
  • Require new instructional and assessment roles for teachers.

Communicative assessment

Among the alternative assessments identified and examine in best practices research is communicative assessment.

"Communicative assessment is a method of determining ... students' overall proficiencies in English" (proficiencies not limited to reading, writing, speaking, listening, grammar, or other discrete skills), according to This type of assessment provides practical feedback about real language use in real life situations.

Communicative assessment can be incorporated into other forms of alternative assessments, the most notable being portfolios and e-portfolios.

Portfolios and e-portfolios

Although the process approach to education has its roots in the work of Dewey and Vygotsky, it didn't become widespread until the 1970s, and only then, it was largely limited to fine arts and composition studies. Almost 40 years later, it has yet to pervade ESL. However, ESL best practices research going back almost 30 years promotes the process approach to learning and assessment:

Proponents of process-oriented curricula and instruction concur that traditional assessment techniques are often incongruent with current ESL classroom practices. Standardized testing is seen as particularly antithetical to process learning and has been attacked vigorously not only in ESL, but also throughout the field of education.

Because of the incompatibility of process learning and product assessment and the discrepancy between the information needed and the information derived through standardized testing, educators have begun to explore alternative forms of student assessment.

Thorough research by Sharon S. Moya and J. Michael O'Malley identifies portfolio assessment as a legitimate alternative to traditional assessment and evaluation: "Portfolio development is increasingly cited as a viable alternative to standardized testing."

Moya and O'Malley explain that there are compelling reasons for adopting portfolios in ESL, noting that "three major considerations" are taken into account. First, single measure assessment is inherently limited; second, the construct to be assessed is inherently complex; and third, there is a need for adaptable assessment techniques.

Single measurement tests do not allow instructors to learn about learner "strengths on which to build." Likewise, single measurement tests "may reduce teaching to preparing for the test." Further, such tests tend to focus on lower-level skills and do not allow for students' individual thought processes.

Finally, such tests "emphasize quantifiable outcomes rather than instructionally relevant formative feedback. ... A single measure is incapable of estimating the diversity of skills, knowledge, processes, and strategies that combine to determine student progress."

O’Malley and Anna Uhl Chamot appeal to progressive educators: "Teachers concerned with developing a thorough assessment of reading comprehension are interested in determining the student's purposes, interpretation and strategic approach to textual materials. The same elements are of interest in writing development and in listening comprehension, receptive skills with mental processes that are similar to those found in reading and that are of equal interest to teachers in ESL instruction."

Harking to the reasons for learner needs analysis, Moya and O'Malley note that portfolios allow for tailoring to the goals and objectives of students as well as course and program goals and objectives. Additionally, portfolios provide continuous information on learners' progress, allowing for formative instructional feedback.

Furthermore, because portfolios are individualized, "linguistic, cultural and educational diversity" are easily addressed in assessment. Likewise, as portfolios are not constrained by quantifiable, multiple-choice techniques, instructional attention can focus on higher-level skills.

Finally, because a portfolio provides "documentation on a student's language development," it affords teachers and learners the requisite, holistic evidence for decision-making.

Maha Alawdat, in her examination of 11 empirical studies of portfolio assessment, stresses the need to eliminate traditional testing methods and replace them with portfolios: "Learning and teaching approaches, such as behaviorism and constructivism which are intertwined into pedagogy, take into consideration cognitive and social development of learners. This development necessitates the need for using tools and methods that exceed the traditional paper-pencil tests for assessment and learning."

The ESL programs at Boston University, Skidmore College, The University of Hawai'i Manoa, and the University of Texas are among those which use portfolios as the primary assessment tool.

Sarah McPherson, one of the many researchers and teachers who advocates replacing traditional testing methods with portfolio assessment, notes that "the purpose of a portfolio system is to systematically organize evidence of meeting standards at three levels: curriculum of the program, faculty instruction and assessment, and candidates' (students') reflection on learning."

A portfolio "should contain those items that best represent (a student’s) accomplishments to a broader world. (It is a student’s) self-portrait. A portfolio is not like a test, an examination, or a course grade. A portfolio shows ... the variety of things you know, those you can do, and those you have done. It should reflect what has been going on in your class and what sorts of tasks and opportunities have been offered to you.'

Andrea H. Penaflorida observes that portfolios invest both learner and teacher in the learner's development: "Portfolios show a student's work from the beginning of the term to the end, giving both teacher and student a chance to assess‖ how much the student has progressed."

Because the contents of portfolios are scored using specific criteria, the use of assessment portfolios is considered criterion-referenced assessment.

Bailin Song and Bonne August observe: "Portfolios are thought to be especially suitable for non-native English-speaking students because portfolios provide a broader measure of what students can do because they replace the timed writing context, which has long been claimed to be particularly discriminatory to non-native writers."

George Lorenzo and John Ittelson note: "E-portfolios serve the same purpose as paper-based portfolios. E-portfolios allow students to demonstrate competencies and reflect upon experiences, documenting academic preparation and career readiness. Creating e-portfolios allow students to enhance their learning by giving them a better understanding of their skills as well as where and how they need to improve to meet academic and career goals."

However, e-portfolios have significant advantages that paper-based portfolios, by their nature, do not. Because e-portfolios allow for audio and video in addition to text, they are particularly useful in an integrated, theme-based curriculum. For example, students in their oral communication courses can use their e-portfolios to post their presentations while students in their written communication courses can post their paragraphs, essays, and research papers.

Alawdat's findings from her investigation of 11 empirical studies of e- portfolios "showed that using e-portfolios motivated and enhanced students' writing, language learning, assessment and technical skills." Alawdat observes, "Mainly, the empirical studies show that using e-portfolios develops L2 learners' reading, writing, oral performance and technical skills. Using e-portfolios also enhances language development, increases learning gains, and teaches assessment for both learners and teachers."

Educators who embrace the best practices research that demonstrates the need to adopt portfolios as the primary assessment tool still need guidance in constructing portfolios. Fortunately, there is a plethora of information upon which educators can draw when designing and implementing portfolios.

According to The National Capital Language Resource Center, portfolio assessment is the systematic, longitudinal collection of student work in response to specific, known instructional objectives and evaluated in relation to the same criteria. Assessment is done by measuring the individual works as well as he portfolio as a whole against specified criteria, which match the objectives toward a specific purpose.

Among many others, The National Capital Language Resource Center (a joint venture among Georgetown University, George Washington University and the Center for Applied Linguistics), Boston University, the University of Hawai'i Manoa, Lorenzo and Ittelson, Sewell, Marczak, and Horn, Moya and O’Malley, McPherson, and "Using Technology to Support Alternative Assessment and Electronic Portfolios" all offer explicit guidance (some include rubrics) for portfolio development and assessment.

Critical thinking and critical reflection

For decades, best practices research has embraced the importance of nurturing critical thinking and critical reflection in both students and teachers. Stephen Brookfield is a contemporary bellwether in advocating critical thinking and critical reflection in teachers. He asserts, "The whole point of critical thinking is to take informed action."

Brookfield identifies critical thinking as having four parts: hunting assumptions, checking assumptions, seeing things from different points of view and taking informed action.

A hunting assumption is characterized as the point at which critical thinkers make the effort to identify the assumptions behind how we behave. Once we become aware of the assumptions behind our behavior, we assess the reliability and validity of our assumptions; this step is identified as checking assumptions.

In an effort to decide if our assumptions are accurate, critical thinkers work to view our assumptions from multiple perspectives. The final step in critical reflection is to take informed action, which Brookfield defines as "an action that is based on thought and analysis, which means there is some evidence we take seriously as supporting such an action."

Jack Mezirow, another scholar and teacher who has been at the helm of advocating for critical thinking and critical reflection in education, supports Brookfield, "Critical reflection involves a critique of the presuppositions on which our beliefs have been built."

In his many publications, Mezirow explains the inseparable connection between critical thinking, critical reflection and transformative learning. Mezirow sees education as "emancipatory" and critical thinking and reflection are essential elements.

"Emancipatory education is an organized effort to help the learner challenge presuppositions, explore alternative perspectives, transform old ways of understanding, an act on new perspectives. Reflection on one's own premises can lead to transformative learning," Mezirow states.

By definition, critical thinking and critical reflection are forms of self-assessment, one which students and teachers can use to make the necessary adaptations to their learning and teaching strategies and processes.

In the next and last article in this series, we will examine how best to incorporate vocabulary and idioms into a curriculum, as well as recommended approaches to teach reading and writing.