Role & Purposes of Assessment in Programs for English Learners

Instructor: Matthew Hamel

Matt has degrees in Journalism and Business and has taught a variety of courses at high schools and universities around the world.

Assessments serve a wide variety of purposes for English language learners. This lesson details and describes both the purposes and roles assessments can play for students learning English in an academic setting.

Why Assessments Matter

As most educators know, some students excel at assessments while others dread the very mention of a test. No matter how students feel about assessments, they are pretty much universally required, at least to some degree, in almost every formal academic setting. The way in which you use assessments can have a significant impact on both their effectiveness and usefulness for identifying student needs and helping students progress.

English learners often approach assessments - ways to gauge their language proficiency as well as academic content knowledge - a bit differently than native speakers. First of all, it is not uncommon for English language learners (ELLs) to approach assessments as purely a needed score rather than an opportunity to learn. Because of this, some learners don't understand the importance of retaining language information beyond the assessment. This pitfall can be avoided by constantly reminding, and showing, students that the English knowledge they are gaining needs to be employed well beyond an assessment, and that this knowledge is necessary for successful communication both inside and outside of the classroom.

The Usefulness of Assessments

Assessments serve several functions for English learners. The primary functions include:

To assess language level and ability: Some programs require individuals to take an official English language exam before entering into an academic program. Two of the most common English assessments are IELTS (International English Language Testing System) and TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). These exams provide students with a language score in four areas:

  • Speaking
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Listening

The higher the score a student can obtain, the better chance he or she may have for entry into an academic program.

To assess a student's current abilities and strengths, while at the some time identifying possible weaknesses and potential difficulties: Some ELLs may excel at English speaking, but struggle with writing and vice versa. Properly administered assessments can help teachers realize which areas need to be reinforced in order to prepare a student for success.

To make placement and evaluation decisions: Many English-based academic programs will give assessments to their students periodically in order to evaluate student work and progress and determine appropriate class level placement.

Planning and Placement

Assessments are useful for identifying specific programs and classes from which students may benefit. If your program allows the flexibility, assessments can show which students should move up or down in terms of class level. Some institutions, however, place students based on age rather than English language ability. If this is the case, delivering content that is appropriately challenging for all students may be difficult, but not impossible.

If you find that the levels of your students in the same class vary significantly, try to use assessments that allow for a range of responses. The following are examples of how assessments can allow students to demonstrate different levels of ability in terms of vocabulary and grammar.

Open-ended long answer, or essay, questions: A range of writing prompts and questions allow for both simple and complex responses.

  • Describe an important event in your life.
  • Write about a person who has helped you.
  • What are your favorite and least favorite parts of learning English?
  • How will understanding English help you in your life?

Individual speaking interviews and small group discussions: If possible, try to set aside time to speak with students individually. During this one-on-one time you can:

  • Review content that has been covered in class.
  • Ask students about how they feel about the information they are learning.
  • Use constructive criticism to identify areas in which students need to improve.
  • Develop individual study plans and tailor exercises or assignments to meet student needs.
  • Provide encouragement and a clear vision for academic goals and milestones.

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