Implementing Tests that Work with Adult Learners

INTRODUCTION "... if we can't always control our bodily movements, we certainly can't always control what goes on in our heads. Sometimes we write and speak brilliantly; sometimes we're at a loss for words. Sometimes we have great ideas; sometimes we seem in a mental rut. Is it any wonder, then, that assessment - finding out what our students have learned - is such a challenge?..." Linda Suskie. After some years of teaching English as a Second Language (henceforth ESL) at private institutions and also English as a Foreign Language (henceforth EFL) at secondary school and recently also privately, I have come to a crosswords in life. Should I Judge or consider a student competent and a proficient user of the target language only if she/he has achieved a passing mark in the mid or end-of-year exam? What to do with those adult learners who in everyday lessons participate, contribute to the progress of the class and in general manage to use the language fluently and accurately but unbelievably fail to pass their tests? How should a teacher bridge that gap? Definitely, testing adult learners is troubling me at this moment of my teaching career, probably because I felt helpless when trying to justify to a bright student of mine, who is a successful professional, his unsatisfactory marks in the test and felt even more miserable when listening to his explanations; "...sorry teacher but I've been working endless hours as my firm has recently merged so I couldn't revise much and I was so nervous that I was blocked" . I remember feeling so out of place and wondering myself why hadn't I asked him if he wanted to do the test that day? But what to do with his other classmates? But, what would I have told the institute that keeps a strict policy regarding test administration and exam dates? And besides I might have affected the reliability of the test. My intention is to reach a conclusion on whether is worth implementing standardised tests to adult learners considering the fact that external factors may affect their performance and the results may not show their true knowledge and skills. The purpose of this project is to analyse the characteristics of tests and alternative methods to evaluate learning and performance in adult learners. BIBLIOGRAPHIC SURVEY Testing and factors that may affect tests performance in adult learners. To start with I would like to provide a definition for assessment; ‘ it is an ongoing process aimed at understanding and improving student learning. It involves making our expectations explicit and public; setting appropriate criteria and high standards for learning quality; systematically gathering, analysing, and interpreting evidence to determine how well performance matches those expectations and standards; and using the resulting information to document, explain, and improve performance. When it is embedded effectively within larger institutional systems, assessment can help us focus our collective attention, examine our assumptions, and create a shared academic culture dedicated to assuring and improving the quality of higher education'. Angelo (1995). When studying different authors to start writing this piece of work, I found that the above definition was going to be of paramount importance throughout my whole work. As to my mind there are key words outlining this definition for assessment such as: setting appropriate criteria, systematically gathering, analysing and interpreting evidence and using information to improve performance. So, how can we assess? Assessment can be done formally, end-of-unit, end-of-year-test, or, informally which is actually carried out continuously by the teacher daily in the classroom. This kind of assessment will enable the teacher to bear in mind other factors which cannot be spot from a test such as: namely, effort, persistence and attitude as stated by (Heaton 1990). It can be done through games, competitions, group work, oral activities etc. These factors mentioned by Heaton are the ones concerning me regarding testing an adult learner as they are not taken into consideration in a standardised tests. However, formal testing has obviously its advantages as Hughes (1989) mentions; they give information about people's language ability, also provide a statement of what students have achieved in a second or foreign language. Tests are also needed to provide information about the achievement of groups of learners, without which it is difficult to see how rational educational decisions can be made and the need for a common yardstick, which test provide, in order to make meaningful comparisons. Here, it is important to mention that also Heaton (1990), provides other reasons for testing; It helps to encourage students ‘...a classroom test can help to show students the progress which they are undoubtedly making. It can serve to show them each set of goals they have reached in their way to fluency. Indeed, such a test would be used for the purpose of increasing motivation...' p 10. My only concern regarding this interesting point is whether a test is motivating for all learners regardless age or only kids and adolescents. Heaton also thinks that testing serves to find out about learning difficulties. I believe it is important to make a distinction among the different types of tests to be administered by the educational system. Hughes (1989) and Heaton (1990) describe them and provide an explanation for their different purposes; Proficiency Tests. Serve to measure language proficiency regardless of any language courses that candidates might have followed. Achievement Tests. Help to discover how far students have achieved the objectives of a course of study. Diagnostic Tests. Are administered to diagnose students' strengths and weaknesses, to identify what they do not know. Placement tests. Contribute to assist placement of students by identifying the stage or part of a teaching programme most appropriate to their ability. And, to find out how well the students have mastered the language areas and skills which have just been taught. Apart from the different tests, trainers or institutions might implement, there are two other key components of a good test, validity and reliability. Davies and Pearse (2000) define, a test valid if: it contains only forms and uses the learners have practiced in the course, it employs only exercises and task that correspond to the general objectives and methodology of the course. Whereas, a test is reliable if: the instructions are clear and unambiguous for all the learners, the exercise or task controls to some extent how learners respond, there are no errors in the test and it bears in mind length and administration. Undoubtedly, these two essential components of a test are the ones that have prevented me from becoming more flexible with the implementation of tests to my adult students. I shall now quote James (1998), who provides an interesting drawback of testing; this author says that when tests lack content validity and if students perceive that they are only assessed on their knowledge on factual content then they are, understandably tempted to limit what they learn accordingly - they rapidly become ‘Test wise'. To me, something commonly seen in teenagers and kids. Also, the following contributions from authors to the field of testing and assessment, if not put into practice by institutions or tests designers, can be seen as disadvantages: When designing tests the material to be used is of greater importance as Tomlinson (1998), states, materials should achieve impact through novelty, variety, attractive presentation and appealing content in order to help learners to feel at ease in many ways e.g. illustrations that can relate to their own cultural background. The material, should help learners to develop confidence by taking into account that learners differ in learning styles whether they are visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, studial, experiential, analytic, global, dependent, independent. Brown (1994) suggests tests should be intrinsically motivating where the learner can feel engaged in cooperative group and they feel it is a valid way and fair means to measure their competence, it must bring out the best of them not the worst. Tests should have authentic language and tasks and provide optimal feedback to students. This author also points out ‘the principle of giving students advance preparation' providing them with information about test format, types of items that will appear, the opportunity to practice and revision. Also in this book Teaching by Principles, Brown mentions aspects related to teaching that for me are key factors to take into account when implementing tests , which he calls ‘Affective principles', here he mentions the ‘Language ego' and says that second language learners need to be treated with affection and care otherwise: ‘highly intelligent adults can be reduced to babbling infants in second language' and emphasises the importance of being supportive to our students. Brown also highlights the importance of helping our students to build up self-confidence and to give them tools to become risk-takers. This author mentions two essential characteristics of a proficient and competent learner; self-confident and risk-taker. I believe many times when administering tests to adults without really having prepared them or trained them for it, we affect the students' level of confidence and progressively, they might end up by being afraid of taking risks. We, should then as teachers work harder on the importance of achieving beneficial Backwash which is defined by Hughes (1989) as the effect of testing on teaching and learning. Suskie (2000) writes about fair assessment practices and giving students equitable opportunities to demonstrate learning and provides seven stages to consider : assessment needs to have clearly stated learning outcomes, match it to what is taught, use many different measures and many different kinds of measures, help students learn how to do the assessment task, engage and encourage students, interpret assessment results appropriately, evaluate the outcomes of assessments During my bibliographic survey I also tried to find other alternatives ways of evaluating and assessing learners and I found that Coombe, C. and Barlow, L. in their Publication in the English Teaching Forum Online quoted Hamayan (1995, 213) who describes alternative assessment procedures as those techniques that can be used within the context of instruction and can be easily incorporated into the daily activities of the school or classroom. One kind of alternative assessment for testing adults can be as Jones (1998) suggests, the use of ‘assessment task' or ‘authentic task', which particularly suits adults as they are asked and involved in an activity to solve real-world problem. Another tool to consider for assessing learners can be Portfolio Assessment and the promotion of learner reflection as Santos (1997) publishes in the English Teaching Forum . This author says the following in her work: ‘Learner reflection encourages students to examine their efforts and the consequences of their actions. It also helps them to see connections between students' goals and beliefs about their learning and their actual learning behavior. Students can adjust their goals according to what they want and know they can do. Teachers can also take informed actions based on what they learn about their students from their reflections. They can see how course goals match the learner's individuals goals, and whether adjustments in the curriculum or teaching approach need to be made. They can also see which classroom activities were most valuable to the learners, and thus worth keeping as a part of the curriculum'. So what is a portfolio? According to Coombe,C and Barlow,L. a portfolio is a collection of student work. As far as portfolios are defined in writing assessment, a portfolio is a purposive collection of student writing over time that shows the stages in the writing process a text has gone through and the stages of the writer's growth. Increasingly, portfolios are being compiled in a way that allows the student to provide evidence of self-reflection. Portfolios reflect accomplishment relative to specific instructional goals or objectives. Key elements of portfolios are student reflection and self-monitoring. These two authors also provide a list of characteristics of a portfolio compiled from different testers: The portfolio judges more than a single performance Collection, the writer is able to use different genres that show off different areas of expertise Range, writers bring their experiences with them into the assessment Context richness , students can go back and revise their work Delayed evaluation, students participate in the selection process ( selection, the learner is responsible for his/her success ( student-centred control), the learner self assesses and/or reflects on what he/she has learned (Reflection and self-assessment), growth along specific parameters: Portfolios allow evaluators to ask specific questions such as "Has the writer developed over time/become a better speller?" . Development over time: Readers can trace the development of each piece. To sum up, most writers believe in the usefulness and necessity to measure knowledge and performance either by assessing formally or informally. COMAPRISON AND ANALYSIS Before going further I would like to differentiate the terms ESL and EFL. We shall say that the difference is that of location ESL means that students will be surrounded by an English spoken atmosphere. EFL means that in the classroom students deal with English but outside it they will only hear their native language. For the purpose of my work I will consider ESL learners those attending Private Institutions and consider EFL learners those attending private lessons or public high school. In order to start analysing why tests might not fully work with some adult learners, I have observed one ESL and one EFL group both of intermediate level and with five students in each. Also, in order to extend the scope of research, a survey in the form of a written questionnaire was carried out among 20 students whose age range between 19 to 32 years old attending private lessons. The survey can be seen in appendix 1. The two groups have been watched in three stages Pre-testing, While-testing and Post-testing, the objectives while observing the students and teachers performing in the different stages were: Pre-testing: to compile information regarding the teacher's and students' approach to the coming event. How trainers prepared the class for it, types of activities proposed, students' reaction to them. While-testing: to observe learners' behaviour and reaction to the test, how these manage the tasks and the use of strategies. After-testing: to observe the ways in which the class and trainer deal with the results and if there is test correction . Research findings: ESL group At the pre-testing stage: It could be appreciated that the teacher fostered some tasks in order to prepare students for the oral test by exposing students to similar situations to those being proposed in the real test. Apart from that, the students where given the chance to enquire about what to do and not to do during the interview. However, it could be observed some reluctance from the learners to the idea of being tested in their oral skills and accepted a bit better the fact of having also a written exam. Although the teacher also carried out similar tasks to the ones proposed in the oral exam, three of the five students in the lesson were against the idea of uttering a word by arguing that they did not know how to speak , which represented a big challenge for the teacher as it was difficult for her to make them participate. Although she made emphasis on practicing for the oral test , it was obvious that the students were not used to doing this kind of activity. While performing the tests some students felt the need to ask for help but the teacher politely refused. Some of them could not avoid fidgeting at their desks all the time. At the post-testing stage, the following class, the students were eager to know the results and although only one student failed, the class in general did not manage to get very good marks, which for some of them, judging by their faces, was a bit disappointing. The teacher went over the test with the whole class in order to provide the right answers. Judging by the learners comments to the teacher, this practice was very meaningful to them as they could become aware of the areas in which they needed further work. Regarding this, however, I could not see in the following two classes any kind of remedial work, or game dealing with the most common mistakes in the test. EFL group When told by the teacher they were going to have a test, the students, showed with body language and comments that they disagreed to do it. They asked the teacher if it was really necessary to do it, and she managed to convince them with her arguments. Nevertheless, the learners seemed to have accepted the test just because they could feel it was important for teacher. I came to this conclusion, after listening to one of them saying: ‘ok, if you think we have to do it, go ahead'. Obviously, the student understood the teacher's point but failed to see the benefits she could obtain by doing the test. At the pre-testing stage: Unlike the previous ESL group, the teacher here just told the students to revise units 9 to 12 of their course book to do the test the following week. While being tested: they could not avoid feeling tempted to ask the teacher for further explanations on the way they were supposed to tackle the task. In two occasions the teacher agreed to re read the instructions pausing and using gestures to help students understand what they had to do. At the post testing stage: the teacher corrected the tests altogether and continued with the lesson planned for that day. EFL Student's Survey After collecting the surveys done to these students attending private lessons and going over the answers to the different questions It could observed, the following results regarding the feelings they experience while performing a standardised test. It can be clearly seen that the affective barriers are factors that might contribute to adults underperformance. This group of learners does not seem to profit from the exam but to go through strong negative feelings during the examination time and therefore, they are not going to get a positive backwash effect no matter the results obtained. See graph in appendix II. Regarding the opinion they hold on whether they prefer an end-of-year-test or work with portfolio assessment , the graph shows that students despite undergoing a difficult time while doing a standardised test or exam, because of the high level of stress, trust this assessment tool above others. See graph in appendix III When interviewed about tests content the results showed that the 60% of the students interviewed thought that this is boring followed by a 50% who thought that it is useless and a 15% who thought that test evaluated what they had learnt. See graph in appendix IV. Another interesting piece of information obtained is that 45% of students admitted they do not check their tests in class or with their peers. See appendix V CONCLUSION The research shows that the majority of the students have internalised tests and exams as the best tool to measure their knowledge despite the stressful time they undergo every time, these, sit for a test. On the other hand, teachers do not seem to care about lowering the affective filters of their learners or helping them overcome nervousness. Moreover, considering the way some teachers continue with their lessons after the tests, it gives the impression that these, do not give much importance to the formative aspect of a test or exam but they seem to be focused only on the marks the students can get and put aside one of the uses of tests which is giving the learner the chance to do their best. Therefore, it might be an alternative for those learners whose levels of anxiety and stress are too high at the moment to do a test, and consequently cannot show their true knowledge and abilities, to implement other types of assessment like for instance, portfolio. Since with it, these students will have the chance to gather their best pieces of work during the course along with reflection on them, the course and their own performance. All these, will provide teachers not only with more trustful information to digest and to process about their learners but it will also contribute to lower their students affective filters and improve their self-confidence. Finally, it seems that further research is needed among teachers working with adult learners so as to use assessment not only as a way marking them but as a tool to collect information on how to help adult students feel less pressure. This can be done by implementing different types of assessment that cater for the needs and characteristics of the learners.     BIBLIOGRAPHY Angelo, T. A. Reassessing (and Defining) Assessment. http://beacon.salisbury.edu/oa/resources/DefinitionsAndReferences.htm American Association of Higher Education. Principles for Assessing Student Learning. 1991. http://www.facet.iupui.edu/resources/AAHE Principles.pdf Brown, D. 1994. Teaching by Principles. Prentice Hall. Coombe, C. and Barlow, L . The Reflective Portfolio: Two Case Studies from the United Arab Emirates . http://exchanges.state.gov/forum/vols/vol42/no1/p18.htm Davies,P. and E. Pearse( 2000). Success in English Teaching. Oxford University Press, Chapter 12 (185-197) Heaton, J.B. (1990). Classroom Testing. Longman Group UK Limited. Hughes, H. (1989) Testing for Language Teachers. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. James, M. (1998). Using Assessment for School Improvement. Heinemann School Management. Santos, M. (1997). Portfolio assessment and the role of learner reflection. English Teaching Forum. http://exchanges.state.gov/forum/vols/vol35/no2/p10.htm Suskie, L. (2000). Fair assessment practices: Giving students equitable opportunities to demonstrate learning. http://www.elcamino.edu/administration/vpsca/docs/assessment/FairAssessm... . Tomlinson, B (1998). Materials Development in Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press.  

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