Sunday, April 27, 2008

Assessing with the Council of Europe Framework

By Jennifer Wallace - Anhui Gongye Daxue, Ma'anshan, China

Lots of us are trying to develop tests appropriate for the situations we're teaching in. One document I'd recommend, because I've found it enormously helpful, is the Council of Europe Framework, which is on the Internet, as a downloadable pdf file (for which you need to have Adobe Acrobat Reader on your machine). I like the document for several reasons.

The work behind it is the work of a large number of experts across Europe, who've developed one framework to cover the teaching (and testing) of any of the languages taught and used in Europe - which of course includes a variety of non-European languages. In other words, the whole thing is language independent. I understand it to be very much a reflection of the most up to date understanding we have of measuring language performance. The particular document in question is the latest version, the result of many revisions.

The document addresses the fundamental questions in all this, and looks at every dimension conceivable - so I can use it as a basis for testing speaking, listening, reading, anything. It looks at things on general levels and on detailed specific levels - so you can home in on the level that is relevant for you at the moment.

Because this framework is as comprehensive as it is, it lets me think up a variety of activities for the form of my tests, activities that reflect the students experiences and what they've done in a course. But at the same time it's kept me very much on track, enabling me to see clearly what level our target it.

Because it's not language-specific, you can test yourself (there's one section on self-testing) for your Chinese to see how this sort of approach works.

Someone also commented about examiners' ability not to be swayed - well, I think what allows me to be more objective is using a number of scales and criteria when I test. For example, this semester my college end-of-first-year students will get some marks for pronunciation (because we've done quite a bit of pronunciation work on their Oral English classes), some marks for fluency, some marks for grammar, some marks for vocabulary/lexis and some marks for coherence.

I'm also thinking about including some marks for how they deal with problems - repair work, asking for help, paraphrasing, miming, using fillers to gain thinking time and to fill a silence, and the suchlike - what's called strategic competence. My criteria for vocab/lexis and grammar will not be whether they demonstrate use of anything in particular, but in how effective they are at communicating successfully -do their errors interfere with communication, or hinder it, or render it impossible! This is because I teach college English majors - I think testing for specific aspects of these dimensions is the responsibility of other teachers in other classes. but at the same time, my students do realise that I consider grammar and lexis to be seriously important.

As regards a quick test, my experience, and the experience of other testing large numbers quickly for summer schools (in UK language schools), is that in an informal chat of around 5 minutes, grading only on a 5 point scale (with very easy to understand scoring 5) is a remarkably effective tool in the hands of a native speaker. Even on the most mundane of topics (your home town, your family), it sorts the lower from the higher from the in betweens. I did this at the beginning of this year with my 225 new students, and on subsequent reflection, having taught them now for 2 semesters, remarkably few of my initial assessments were wrong, and none were way off.

What's interesting is looking back at their subsequent development! The value for me is how much respect I have for the students who got a low rating at the beginning who would only now get a middle rating - but wow, what progress! In each band, I can see students who have really made big efforts and made progress, and I can also see students who've made almost no progress. Of those, a small number are not interested in the effort it entails (basketball etc is more important), but I also have one or two who I realise are making efforts but little progress. I think that initial testing and placement has really helped me, and I plan to do it for future Oral English classes. One thing I did was use the test results to make groups according to level, and that's been very successful as well.

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