Assessment is a necessary element in any educational setting and it significantly impacts the lives of students and teachers. Unfortunately, the topic is not so often explored in teacher education programmes or in policy-making debates. Not only does assessment influence the curriculum and the teaching practice, but it may also affect the perception of learning. Moreover, assessment has an emotional facet that cannot be ignored; after all, it has a clear impact on learners’ feelings about their cognitive process (Nobre & Villas Boas, 2020). Despite its relevance for education, some assessment techniques we use today are still quite similar to the ones used by previous generations, even though teaching itself has been changing throughout the years. Looking at this reality we can say that assessment tends to evolve more slowly than other pedagogical innovations, such as changes in methods, approaches, techniques and resources. One of the main reasons for that seems to be the difficulty in changing consolidated beliefs about assessment. Beliefs which need to be rethought if we want to see real transformation in the way we teach and learn. In other words, we really need to change the paradigm of assessment for it to better respond to the needs of new teaching and learning contexts and practices. And this is not necessarily an easy process.
Talking about traditional assessment often means referring to formal tests that check students’ ability to recollect and reproduce the content studied during a course (Coombe et al, 2012). These are usually standardized timed tests that are applied to all learners in the same conditions. However, these are not the only characteristics of traditional assessment. There are other typical features that have been underlying our practice and that might have been consolidated as the ‘right’ way to assess learners. Brown (2004), for example, has systematized what traditional assessment entails. One of the features mentioned by him is the use of assessment as a tool to merely check learning at the end of a term, in other words, its use in a summative way. Final exams are a good example of how this happens, as they address the content studied during the whole course and determine if students are apt to move on to the next grade or level. Another of these features is the attention given to establishing one single right answer. Traditional tests are usually focused on learners giving the expected correct answer, so that there is little room for doubt or discussions. In this sense, they are easy to correct and their results are highly reliable. Multiple-choice tests illustrate well this feature because there is no room for subjectivity or flexibility in doing a test in this format – there can only be one accepted answer. Considering these characteristics, we can clearly notice that scores are of great importance in traditional assessment. In fact, they are so significant that the feedback learners receive is often just the score of the test. In this construct, it is the result of an end-of-term multiple-choice test, for example, that will tell learners how well they did in the course. As we can see, the focus of traditional assessment is directed to the product of the assessment rather than the learning process.
Being summative, focusing on the final product, expecting standardized answers and having feedback based on a grade are not the only characteristics of this old paradigm of assessment. They are also normally a sequence of test items that may not have a clear context. Thus, you can find questions in which you have to choose the best alternative to complete a sentence about a certain “John” followed by another one about the weather in an undisclosed place at an unknown time of the year. John and the weather are not related, and to answer the questions, learners do not need to know who John is or the place whose weather is being described. The focus is on the language structure or lexis alone, in isolation. Besides often being decontextualized, traditional tests also tend to overlook the assessment of authentic interaction. Individual skills and knowledge areas that we resort to when interacting, such as listening skills and grammatical and lexical knowledge, may be addressed, but without natural integration that resembles real-life use.
Analysing whether one’s assessment framework is traditional or not is pivotal to understanding how learners might feel in the process of learning. As mentioned before, assessment has an impact on learners’ emotions and their motivation. It is important to highlight here that the kind of motivation generated by assessment is very often linked to the way the results are used (Harris & McCann, 1994). Hence, as traditional assessment focuses on test items with closed answers and on its final score, motivation tends to be extrinsic rather than intrinsic, in the sense that learners and teachers are more concerned about passing or failing than about identifying what has been learned, how effective the teaching has been, what can be changed, what skills or competences need further attention and how much learners have developed.
REASONS TO RETHINK THE USE
OF TRADITIONAL ASSESSMENT
Looking at the characteristics of a traditional assessment framework above, we might be able to raise issues related to its effectiveness, especially when considering a teaching context that claims to rely on a more communicative approach to language learning. To start with, in a more traditional paradigm, there might be little room for assessing genuine production and actual communication, as this kind of assessment typically favours the simple reproduction of content (knowledge about the language) and often disregards interactive performance (spontaneous language use). For example, many activity types are built so as to accept one single possible answer, which is arguably far from how languages are used in real life. As a consequence, validity in traditional tests that claim to assess communicative competence is likely to be rather low. In other words, they seem to fail in accomplishing what they intend to achieve: assessing learners’ ability to use real language to interact naturally with real people. This might be an expected effect of the need to provide high reliability in the assessment tools used, and the fact that, in language assessment, the more reliable a test, the less valid it tends to be (Nobre & Villas Boas, 2020). A consequence of this lack of validity is that learners who are good test‑takers may have good scores but may not be able to communicate as well as their results would suggest.
This leads us to another problem of traditional assessment: its summative nature along with the huge focus given to scores. As tests are frequently used to simply measure the result of the term (looking back at what has been accomplished) and the most important goal seems to be getting an approval to move on to the next level, they end up not being perceived as opportunities to gather information about strengths and areas for improvement (both related to the students’ skills and the efficacy of the course itself). As a result, what learners still need to know and what they can do to achieve it becomes unclear. Likewise, how the teaching might be enhanced winds up not being looked at. Therefore, in a summative approach to assessment, results are not used to inform further learning and teachers do not have the chance to personalize lessons that better address learners’ specific needs. Neither do teachers go on to make informed decisions about what needs to change in their lessons so that further – and more effective – learning can be fostered. More than that, summative testing can also have a negative washback effect, in that lessons end up focusing on merely preparing learners to take the test, rather than flexibly enabling them to improve their overall communicative competence in English, for example. Ultimately, as Brown (2004) points out, greater emphasis on assessment that is contextualized and based on communicative performance – rather than summative testing that revolves around objective exercises and discrete items – can contribute to promoting learning more effectively, if compared to traditional assessment.
If traditional assessment tends to give more weight to reliability, which might negatively impact validity, alternative assessment shifts the focus. By emphasizing true validity in the assessment tools, an alternative framework might provide us with opportunities to analyse learners’ progress in real language use more authentically.
Despite its limitations in terms of really measuring learners’ performance and informing the learning process, traditional assessment is understandably still used in many contexts. We cannot deny that traditional assessment has its strengths and serves its purpose. As mentioned before, objective tasks, such as multiple‑choice questions, are easy and quick to correct, and tend to cater to students’ and families’ expectations of what assessment should look like. For teachers who are responsible for preparing, applying and correcting tests, this is an important factor that cannot be neglected, as all these assessment-related activities usually take a lot of time (Harris & McCann, 1994). Therefore, assessment that allows this quick correction will be enticing for overloaded teachers. Besides, having single answers also reduces the chances of personal opinions influencing the result of the test (Harris & McCann, 1994), thus increasing its reliability and making it easier for the teacher and the school to justify the score given. This leads us to a relevant point in this discussion which is how traditional tests are perceived by the stakeholders involved in the assessment process, namely learners and their parents, teachers and the school administration. Although one may argue that these tests have low validity in terms of assessing students’ communicative performance in authentic situations, they are, at the same time, frequently respected as an instrument to measure learning. Consequently, students, parents and teachers tend to recognize their purpose and accept the results more easily. All these characteristics seem to contribute to understanding why it might be so hard to innovate in the way learning is assessed.
Although it may be tempting to continue resorting to traditional assessment because of the reasons above, this does not mean that there are no alternatives to it, nor that the issues related to traditional assessment should not be dealt with. In general, in order to be more aligned with current teaching practices, assessment should strike a better balance between reliability and validity, focus more on the process rather than on the result, and be a tool to gather information to inform further learning, instead of being simply an instrument to determine who passes and who fails. As Coombe et al (2012) explain, alternative assessment can be used to build a more effective panorama of learners’ development. More than that, it can result in more helpful feedback and contribute to generating intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic (Brown, 2004). Unfortunately, changing the paradigm of assessment is not an easy task. In the first place, teachers’ and learners’ views of assessment tend to be rather conservative. As a result, they are usually resistant to changing assessment procedures (Nobre & Villas Boas, 2020). Besides that, alternative assessments
Alternative assessment may also contribute to a positive washback effect. One of the reasons for that is that assessment that considers learners in a more holistic way and looks at their real use of language – rather than testing formal knowledge about the rules
may generate more work for teachers, as it encourages the use of open-ended questions rather than relying on standardized answers, which makes correction more time-consuming. Nonetheless, the benefits for the learning process are considerable, especially in terms of validity (Nobre & Villas Boas, 2020).
If traditional assessment tends to give more weight to reliability, which might negatively impact validity, alternative assessment shifts the focus. By emphasizing true validity in the assessment tools, an alternative framework might provide us with opportunities to analyse learners’ progress in real language use more authentically. This is only possible because this assessment relies on tasks that are more closely related to learners’ context in the classroom and in real life (Coombe et al, 2012). If the idea of a course is to enable learners to autonomously communicate in English, the assessment tools should be based on tasks in which learners are given the opportunities to use language freely. This kind of holistic and continuous assessment cannot take place in a formal end-of-term objective test. It can, however, be carried out during a series of communicative activities that happen as part of the classroom routine, for example. This highlights an important characteristic of alternative assessment: it is a long-term process which favours continuity rather than one-shot tests (Brown, 2004). It focuses more on the process than on the product (pass or fail), which, as a consequence, contributes to assessment being formative. In other words, it gathers information about learners’ development along the term, allowing teachers to plan their lessons based on students’ needs and strengths. Because of that, alternative assessment also tends to favour more individualized and constructive feedback.
Alternative assessment may also contribute to a positive washback effect. One of the reasons for that is that assessment that considers learners in a more holistic way and looks at their real use of language – rather than testing formal knowledge about the rules – has more content validity in a communicative setting (Hughes, 1992). Therefore, if students want to prepare for an assessment that is ongoing and open ended, for instance, they will have to improve linguistic abilities in a broader and consistent way, and not simply learn strategies to cope with cloze exercises or memorizing rules the night before the test, for example. Furthermore, because this type of assessment happens along the course, a wide range of samples of students’ production can be assessed, making it difficult to predict what will be tested and, thus, encouraging a more thorough development, rather than the improvement of specific areas a formal individual test typically features (Hughes, 1992).
Overall, alternative assessment aims at finding the best in learners (Coombe et al, 2012), approaches students and their abilities from a more humanistic perspective and fosters motivation and creativity (Nobre & Villas Boas, 2020). All of these elements address current learning and teaching philosophies more appropriately. Although alternative assessment may be time-consuming, it is an ongoing practice that can be integrated into classroom practice, which may dilute the workload at the end of the term. Implementing alternative assessment may seem daunting at first, but it does not necessarily mean substituting traditional assessment altogether overnight. This can be done gradually so teachers and learners have time to adapt to a new way of assessing teaching and learning. When we think of change, challenges are often expected, but alternative assessment can add value to the learning process and give learners a more positive experience. It is time we re-thought the way we assess learning so that we can finally make room for a true educational reform.
Assessment may not be one of the most popular topics in teacher education courses, but it certainly impacts the teaching and the learning process in a very direct way. This book aims at introducing some key concepts about assessment theory, explaining how these concepts relate to English language teaching, analyzing traditional and more current assessment paradigms, exploring the necessary knowledge to design tests and other assessment tools, and refl ecting upon the role that assessment has in education. It is a book for teachers, academic coordinators, course designers and anyone who is interested in deepening their understanding of what assessment is and how it impacts education.
Vinicius Nobre is the Director of Education at CNA. He is also a course book writer and has co-authored three methodology books on English Language Teaching. His last work, Getting into ELT Assessment, was written with Isabela Villas Boas and launched by Cengage. Vinnie is also a post-graduation professor, a CELTA tutor, past president of BRAZ‑TESOL and an experienced speaker with a background in teacher education, ELT management, assessment, content development and education technology