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Language learning and assessment 1


This essay looks at how a variety of testing items can align to the desired results put forth in a

written curriculum. The educational context of an English as a foreign language classroom

fosters the creation of understandings, knowledge, and skill sets as an inclusive set of curricular

aims. Norm and criteria-referenced tests are discussed in terms of how each can benefit from

assessing English language learners’ communicative competency as well as their academic

English skills. It was determined that both types of tests are equally important in assessing

English language learners and that the best approach to implementing such tests is through a

community of practice that promotes shared and reflective teaching practices in a risk-free

educational environment.
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Language learning and assessment: setting behavioral objectives through the development of


Assessment in language learning often focuses on behavioral objectives that are based on

skills (i.e., grammar usage, phonetic distinction, lexical ability, etc.). How English language

learners communicate is often measured in terms of fluency, accuracy, and perhaps sociocultural

elements to language as well. Limiting assessment on skill-based behavior runs the risk of

overshadowing the potential for language learners to achieve higher levels of achievement as

Bloom states in his taxonomy as follows: “analysis”, “synthesis”, and “evaluation” (as cited in

Kubiszyn and Borich, 2007, p. 95). Wiggins and Mctighe’s put forth a slightly different notion

of establishing learning outcomes through their pursuit of “six facets of understandings: a)

explain, b) interpret, c) apply, d) perspective, e) empathy, and f) self-knowledge” (Wiggins and

McTighe, 2005, pp. 85-102). The six facets of understanding contrast Bloom’s taxonomy in that

the former is not hierarchical and are not limited to only the cognitive domain. Indeed, the

affective and psychomotor domain are addressed as well through an emergent,

phenomenological perspective (i.e., teachers facilitate learners through various performance

verbs that are not specific to only one or two facets of understanding as opposed to being

determined prior to instruction). In determining the evidence required to infer what English

language learners should understanding, know, and be able to do, a combination of “selected and

constructed response” (Popham, 2008, p. 115) test items are needed.

Before planning assessment test items, the desired results, or classroom objectives, must

be determined. The desired results can be expressed in terms of understandings, knowledge, and

skill sets. In other words, assessing the English language learner (ELL) builds not only on a

certain skill set (i.e., pronunciation and grammar usage), but also some cultural knowledge and
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understanding of sociocultural practice. Taking a typical topic from a level I English course as

an example, an understanding might be as follows: The English language learner will

understand that the manner and way in which people greet and introduce each other depends

greatly on the social context. In order to achieve this understanding, ELLs will need to know

under which social contexts speakers use formal and informal register, and they will need to be

able to use the present tense form of a variety of verbs and appropriate vocabulary in order to

successfully introduce themselves and others as well as greet both friends and strangers. An

example of an instructional objective that is based on what an ELL should know and be able to

do is as follows: After reflecting on a give social context, the ELL will be able to effectively greet

and introduce someone using the appropriate use of language in a way that is understood by a

native or near native-like speaker. When assessing these desired results (i.e., understandings,

knowledge, and skill set), several types of assessment measures are necessary to assure that the

evidence the ELL provides is valid, reliable, and non-bias.

Assessing desired results include both norm and criterion-referenced tests. Norm-

referenced tests (NRTs) include in-part multiple-choice, true-false, and matching test items.

Continuing with our example, a multiple-choice question that attempts to assess our instructional

objective might be the following: When greeting a good friend at a party – one you typically see

on a daily basis at school – all of the following are acceptable introductions except: a) Hey,

man. What´s up? b) What’s going on? c) How´s it going? d) Excuse me, how are you tonight? A

true-and-false question measuring the same desired result: When greeting someone, the

utterance, “What´s up, man?” is not used to address a female. (T/F). An example of a matching

exercise follows:

Match the possible opening greetings (1-5) with the most appropriate follow-up response (A-E).
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Write the appropriate response in the space provided.

1. Hey, what´s up man? ____ A. I´m alright, dude. But I just had a fight

with my girlfriend.

2. Hello Sir (a stranger), how are you? __ B. Yeah, it sure is.

3. My name is Bob. What’s yours? ____ C. Not much dog. What´s new.?

4. How are you today, Bob (your friend)? D. Tim.


5. Nice weather we´re having today? ___ E. I fine thanks, and you?

Answers: 1. C; 2. E; 3. D; 4 A; 5. B

With NRTs, answers are objective; that is, there is usually only one right answer. Questions are

typically reduced to assessing discrete facts and knowledge usually associated with the lower

three cognitive objectives: knowledge, comprehension, and application (Kubiszyn and Borich,


Another type of assessing desired results is through constructed-response tests (CRTs),

specifically essay writing. Kubiszyn and Borich (2007) make a distinction between two types of

essay responses: extended and restricted. An extended essay “can vary from lengthy, open-ended

end-of-semester term papers or take-home tests that have flexible page limits (e.g., 10-12 pages

or no more than 20 pages)” while a restricted response essay is “restricted to one page or less”

(p. 136). An extended essay typically is most appropriate for assessing understandings whereas

restricted essays are more appropriate for knowledge or non-contextual, discrete facts. To assess

the greeting and introduction example, the following essay could be used to assess an

understanding: You were contracted by a tour agency to provide a written guide for foreigners
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to the United States in order to help them get around a new city. Since the foreigners speak

little-to-no English but do read a good amount of English, you must include in your written guide

several different social contexts and dialogs in order for the foreigners to have an idea as to

which language is most appropriate. They will need to know the different registers (formal or

informal language use), non-verbal communication, key vocabulary terms, and other cultural

norms for each given social context. Each dialog should have three-to-five turns in order to

properly describe the language that is to be used, and standard English should be used when

completing the guide, playing close attention to grammar, spelling, and punctuation. The

following essay could be used to assess knowledge or non-contextual facts: Imagine you are at a

party with friends, but there are a few people who you don´t know. Write out a 10-turn dialog

that takes you through a conversation as you introduce yourself, both to friends and to strangers.

Formal and informal language as well as side-notes that specify non-verbal communication

should be included in your dialog. Your writing should include correct grammar, spelling, and

punctuation. Your entire dialog should not exceed one page. Contrasting NRTs, CRTs allow for

a variety of possible answers and provide the ELL a level of choice in the learning process.

Although CRTs tend to be more subjective, using “good” rubrics can help make assessing CRTs

as objective as possible. A “good” rubric necessitates groups of teachers working together in

determining what criteria are most appropriate for a given collection of test items.

Assessment in language learning extends beyond the typical skill-based emphasis seen in

the past. Instead of only testing language use (i.e., communicative competency), testing for

understanding and knowledge can also be incorporated into the learning process as English

language learners acquire higher levels of academic English as well. Norm and criteria-

referenced tests provide both objective and subjective testing items respectively, thus achieving
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higher levels of cognitive, affective, and psychomotor development. In order to effectively

achieve this higher level of development, assessment must be aligned with the desired results, or

curricular aims in a way that promotes a community of practice that promotes a shared and

reflective teaching practice in a risk-free educational environment.

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Kubiszyn, T. and Borich, G. (2007). Educational testing and measurement: Classroom

application and practice. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley and Jossey-Bass Education.

Popham, W. (2008). Classroom assessment: What teachers need to know. New York: Pearson.

Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.