Assessment Challenges

What are some challenges faced in assessing heritage language learners?

Even if you understand why assessing heritage language learners is important, there are many challenges involved in the process. We’ve identified a few obstacles that you may experience:

Finding appropriate assessments to use across a diverse student population

  • There may be a wide range of proficiency levels, language varieties, and linguistic and/or cultural backgrounds in a single classroom. Teachers may also find themselves working with a small number of HLLs in a mixed classroom designed for second language learners, which will lead to even greater diversity among your students. This makes finding appropriate assessments a difficult task.
  • If there isn’t a single assessment that works well for all students in a classroom, teachers are encouraged to individualize and personalize assessment practices to best meet the needs of each student and their own goals or objectives.

Professional development

  • There are very limited opportunities for training and professional development related to HLLs, and many educators working with this population may not be familiar with their needs or proficiency profiles. If teachers do not understand their students, they cannot appropriately and effectively assess their abilities.
  • Teachers working with HLLs can advocate for further staff training opportunities, and they can also take advantage of free research publications and resources provided by one of the professional organizations mentioned in the Online Resources section of this module. 

Advocacy and support

  • As the field of heritage language education is still relatively new, teachers may find that there is limited support or understanding from the community or school administration. Sometimes, teachers will need this support to implement new assessment practices, so any limitations in this area may keep them from assessing students in the most appropriate and effective way.
  • Teachers can encourage colleagues to learn more about this population of learners, and evidence gathered from classroom activities and assessments may provide evidence that can be used to advocate for HLLs and their needs.

Materials and resources

  • There are few resources developed specifically for heritage learners, including textbooks, assessments, standards, performance descriptors, and other authentic materials for classroom use. To best support HL students, teachers may have to develop their own resources, which can be both time-consuming and expensive.
  • Teachers may find it helpful to build a working group or professional learning community with other educators who work with HLLs, as this type of collaboration can support resource development and help form a shared understanding of what works well with this population of learners.

In the absence of heritage-specific assessment materials and frameworks, research has closely examined the use of world language proficiency guidelines for the purpose of assessing heritage speakers, resulting in a number of conflicting viewpoints and lengthy discussion. Those in favor of using traditional world language guidelines advocate that the focus on functionality, rather than native-like proficiency, would make the guidelines applicable for a heritage context. However, others argue that existing proficiency scales may not be useful when working with HLLs, as they may not be tailored to their needs and learner profiles. This can be a challenge because many existing assessment tools are based on these frameworks and scales. 

A strong understanding of the basic principles of assessment, HLL characteristics and considerations, and the needs of your students and classroom will help you make an informed decision about whether or not these guidelines are appropriate for your context, or what adaptations may be necessary.