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Volume 22, No. 2 Spring/Summer 1999

Standards-Based Assessment for ESOL Students
by Anne Katz, ARC Associates

For the past decade, standards-based curriculum reform has fueled change in schools throughout the United States. The ESL [English as a Second Language] Standards for Pre-K­12 Students, released by the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) in 1997, provided an entry point for including English language learners in the standards conversation. The result of years of work by ESL and bilingual educators throughout the country, ESL standards define the content area for ESL by focusing on the language skills English language learners must master to function successfully in classrooms at all grade levels, as well as in the wider community. More than a listing of language competencies, the standards document also serves as a theoretical framework for understanding the process of language acquisition. This framework provides a basis for designing effective instructional programs for students in the process of developing language skills. Classroom-based vignettes make up the heart of the book, illustrating how a range of effective instructional practices based on this theoretical framework are being implemented in specific educational contexts. The intent of this document is to assist teachers and schools in the design of educational programs that will enable English language learners to achieve in their schools and beyond.

While the ESL standards provide an entry into the standards movement for these students, another of TESOL's efforts to reform the education of ESOL students has been to sponsor the development of an assessment document, which serves as a companion piece to the standards work. The first step in this effort was published by TESOL in 1997. Managing the Assessment Process: A Framework for Measuring Student Attainment of the ESL Standards (the MAP) sets out the conceptual framework for assessment and the role such an assessment approach can have in ensuring that students are developing targeted language proficiencies. The remainder of this article will discuss this conceptual framework and outline the contents of the next planned assessment document centered on that framework.

A Conceptual Framework for Assessment

EXHIBIT 1: Conceptual Framework for AssessmentThe diagram in Exhibit 1 provides a schematic of the conceptual framework for standards-based instruction and assessment and illustrates how they are linked. In this framework, assessment is intertwined with instruction. The ESL standards provide the focus for bothfor example, for the choice and development of instructional lesson plans and tasks and for the design and selection of assessments to be used in determining students' progress in achieving those standards. The model also reminds us that the teaching and learning process provides the broader context for both instruction and assessment.

When thinking about assessment, it is common to draw on our own experiences as learners in schools. Many of us narrow our thinking about assessment to memories of an exam given at the end of a unit or grading period or the weekly spelling quiz. We may also tie it to yearly testing required by the districts where we attended school. More recently, however, views of assessment have changed, particularly with regard to English language learners. Current ideas about language and learning envision learners as active constructors of knowledge in meaningful ways and in interactions with other learners within rich contexts. These more complex ideas require more complex assessments.

EXHIBIT 1: Conceptual Framework for Assessment
New Assessment Practices

Authentic assessments. Teachers draw tasks for this assessment from the instructional context of students' classrooms.

Dynamic assessments. Teachers focus on both the processes and products of learning. Learners' tasks may be complex and involve multiple steps, and students may have to explain responses to demonstrate their learning.

Individual and group assessments. Teachers ask students to demonstrate learning in individual, as well as group performances.

Standards-referenced assessments. Student achievement is measured against specific instructional targets tied to standards.

Multiple assessments. Teachers collect information about student learning from a variety of sources and on multiple occasions.

Managing the Assessment Process

The MAP defines some of the key terms used in discussions about measuring student learning, such as test, assessment, and evaluation. A test is narrow in focus, designed to measure a set of skills or behaviors at one point in time. Assessment is broader in scope and involves gathering information over a period of time. This information might include formal tests, classroom observations, student self-assessments, and data from other sources. Evaluation applies to assessment data that have been scored and analyzed to make judgments or draw inferences about students and educational programs.

Drawing on these distinctions, then, TESOL's conceptual framework centers on assessmentthe gathering of information over timeand views assessment as a means of providing a rational basis for decision making at all levels of schooling, from classrooms all the way up to state and national levels. From a decision-making perspective, assessment data are collected because they can provide needed information for educators as they examine students' progress toward attaining the ESL standards.

Exhibit 2 sets out a four-phase assessment cycle, the heart of this decision-based view of assessment. As shown in Exhibit 2, each phase of this dynamic cycle actually consists of many activities. For example, in the first phase, planning, teachers or educators using this approach would need to determine why assessment data were being collected and who would be interested in seeing them. To ensure ease in collecting and analyzing data, it would make sense to work out a timeline so that assessment occurred on a regular and timely basis. It is important to note that the idea of a four-phase cycle for assessment is not unique to this project. Versions of it can be found in many books and articles about assessment. In the MAP, however, we have infused this cycle with a set of 19 principles highlighting the role of linguistic and cultural diversity. These principles are embedded within each of the different phases. For example, in the planning phase, the first principle states: "The students' ages, learning styles, levels of proficiency and academic achievement in first and second languages, educational continuity inside and outside the United States, and amount of time receiving ESL/bilingual support provide the background information for assessment." It is easy to see how such a principle would suggest important steps in planning for the collection of data and, just as importantly, for understanding what they mean.

Exhibit 3 is an excerpt from an assessment checklist, based on the principles within each phase of the assessment process, designed to serve as a needs assessment when looking at a school's or district's current assessment policies and practices.

EXHIBIT 2: The Assessment Cycle
Exhibit 2: The Assessment Cycle

1. Planning assessments

  • Identifying purposes and audiences
  • Devising a timeline for data collection and analysis
  • Selecting standards and instructional strategies
  • Setting performance levels or benchmarks
  • Designing or selecting performance/proficiency/commercially developed/norm-referenced tests and tasks
  • Modifying and/or selecting rubrics

2. Collecting and recording information

  • Using journals and feedback form
  • Conferencing with students
  • Using performance tasks and assessment documents
  • Administering commercially available, nationally norm-referenced tests
  • Observing students and maintaining anecdotal records

3. Analyzing and intepreting assessment information

  • Applying standards to information collected
  • Interpreting scores for students, classes, programs, districts, and states
  • Judging performances using scales or rubrics
  • Examining progress across time with multiple assessments
  • Using a data management system

4. Using information for reporting and decision making

  • Modifying instructional plan
  • Sharing student progress with students and parents
  • Creating additional program support for ESOL students

Scenarios for Assessment

While the vignettes in the ESL standards document present snapshots of instruction, the next assessment document planned to accompany the standards is designed to provide classroom videos. The draft copy of this document was released at TESOL's 1999 conference in New York. The working title is Scenarios for ESL Standards-Based Assessment. The document includes the MAP and illustrates how the assessment model proposed in the MAP can be implemented in a range of classrooms serving ESOL students. As with the ESL standards document, the scenarios in this document were written by ESL and bilingual educators. Building on the ESL standards vignettes, the scenarios interweave assessment with instruction and recast the classroom action within the four phases of the assessment cycle.

All scenarios follow the same basic format. Like the vignettes, they begin by specifying a goal and standard, then list specific progress indicators that will serve as the instructional and assessment focus for the scenario.

Background information about students and the classroom is provided in the context section, as is information about the classroom setting, showing where students are in the instructional sequence. Most of this information is drawn directly from the vignettes. The next section, however, Allocation of Time, adds to the vignette format by providing the time frame in which the instructional and assessment sequence take place. Across the scenarios, the allocation of time varies, because the scenarios focus on a range of instructional topics; thus assessment practices also vary according to the needs of stakeholders.

After setting the scene, as it were, with the preceding sections, the main action of the scenarios unfolds: the instructional and assessment cycle set within the four assessment phases. The first phase, planning, shows how a teacher might plan to include assessment within a sequence of instructional activities. This section provides examples of the ways in which a teacher might align instruction with assessment or select or modify assessment tools. The collecting and recording phase shows how assessment takes place at different points throughout the time frame illustrated in the scenario and provides examples of tools teachers might use and of opportunities for including a variety of stakeholders in this phase of the assessment process. The analyzing and interpreting phase shows how assessment data may be scored and analyzedfor example, teacher or peers using scoring criteria to rate a portfolio, or students rating their own performance using a self-assessment. During this phase, the instructor also looks for patterns of performance across students. The reporting and decision-making phase shows how the results of assessment can be used with a variety of stakeholders and for a variety of purposes. It is in this phase that decisions are made, for example, about student progress toward achieving the identified standard or the effectiveness of specific instructional strategies. The scenarios avoid standardizing any of the activities within each phase of the cycle in order to encourage ESL educators to use the scenarios as springboards for incorporating assessment practices in meaningful ways in their own settings.

The last two sections of the scenarios are extensions of the activities taking place in the instructional and assessment cycle. In the discussion section, important features of the scenario are highlighted. The connections section offers ways in which the specifics of that scenario can be extended. For example, they could be applied to other goals or standards or in other classrooms across disciplines. As noted above, the scenario document is still in draft form and not all of the ESL standards have been addressed. The number of scenarios will be increased so that each ESL standard is represented, and the document will be revised based on feedback from the field. The final document is expected to be issued at the TESOL 2000 conference in Vancouver. For those interested in taking a closer look at the scenarios, the draft is available on the Web:

EXHIBIT 3: Needs Assessment Checklist

Planning Assessments

____   Are all stakeholders involved in deciding assessments?

____   Does the assessment reflect the student's background?

____   Does the assessment provide new information that complements and builds upon other information?

____   Is the assessment contextualized?

____   Does the assessment mirror the language(s) and content of instruction?

____   Does the assessment rely on a variety of learning strategies?

____   Will the information collected be reliable, valid, and based on current educational research?

____   Are the criteria against which students will be measured clearly defined?


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