Helping Young Learners Get the Most Out of Assessment – David Dodgson
One of the biggest ‘changes’ I have witnessed in my current school during the ten years and more I have worked here concerns assessment. When I started here, pencil and paper testing was king, dictating students’ grades and condensing their learning efforts of the previous few weeks into a concise 45 minute grammar-based test (as is the case in the majority of schools in Turkey).
However, there have been ‘changes’ (the reason for using inverted commas around ‘changes’ will be become clear as you read on): first, we were introduced to the CEFR; following that, portfolios and self-assessment were introduced to our in-house assessment programme; an increased emphasis was placed on project work; rubrics were created for grading classroom performance; and the Cambridge YLE tests (Starters, Movers, and Flyers) were brought in for the appropriate year groups.
With all these new elements, you would think that the importance placed on exams had diminished over the years but, far from it, the exam still rules over all. End of year grades are heavily weighted towards the test score. Moreover, the projects, portfolios and class performance grades are officially not allowed to be ten points above or below the test grade… And now you see that these ‘changes’ have not really changed much at all, except that students and teachers alike now have more work to do…
I may be wrong (I hope I am) but I suspect the same may be true in countries other than Turkey as well – ‘alternative’ methods of assessment are included and given some attention but the exam is still very much on top when it comes to student, teacher and stakeholder priorities.
So, I guess the exam is here to stay. That does not mean, however, that is has to stay the same. There are changes we can make to ensure that exams are used in a child-friendly way and in the second part of this post, I will share some changes and I have made and some changes I would like to make so that exams test the whole of the child’s knowledge and not just a few structures and new words covered in the since the start of the semester.
- Using international standard exams as a role model for in-house assessment
As I mentioned above, my school added the Cambridge YLE exams to our EFL programme a few years ago. This has had a positive impact on our in-house exams as we have started to mirror the question formats. This means fewer densely-packed gap-fill grammar exercises and more comprehension and thinking-based questions. It also means more visual stimuli in the tests and a more spaced out layout, which leads to a more child-friendly and less intimidating appearance for the exam paper (alas, sadly that does mean we use more paper!)
- Test the whole language
Another lead that I have taken from the Cambridge tests is to focus on the larger picture of what the student knows. I avoid testing obscure vocabulary items just because they were in the book or directing students to focus solely on using past simple or past continuous because that was in the last unit. Instead, I aim for texts, questions and activities that test their overall knowledge of English from the 3 or 4 years they have been learning at school so far. In order to successfully complete the exam tasks, the students must activate their whole knowledge rather than just part of it. In what may seem like a contradiction, this is actually less stressful for learners as they don’t fret over a new language point they are fully familiar with and they don’t feel the urge/pressure to cram study.
- D.I.Y. test preparation
Of course, exams are not just about taking the test but also revising and reviewing ahead of it. It’s all too easy to fall into a trap here of worksheets covering recent grammar and lexis, which often add to the boredom and/or frustration of the exam process. This is one area where we can inspire a change – we don’t always have the authority to change the exams our students take (I can only directly affect the exams for students in the year group I am responsible for) but we certainly can change the way they prepare. Instead of those boring review worksheets, why not get your students to create their own practice materials? After reading a text in class, ask them to prepare exam-style questions on it; get them to make their own grammar gap-fills; encourage them to prepare vocabulary quizzes for the rest of the class; use their own compositions and paragraphs as reading texts. All of these activities can help students get inside the exam and think about how the questions are put together from a different perspective. And they might just learn something rather than simply review it.
- Give students a voice in their own assessment
Why stop there? If students are capable of preparing their own practice activities, why not have them compose their own exam questions as well? I tried this with a few classes last year for some target vocabulary. I reviewed the words they needed to know for the exam and asked groups of students to write questions involving each word. We then spent time correcting and redrafting the questions, rejecting any that were too easy or too hard and eliminating any ambiguity until I had a list of about twenty questions. From those that list, ten questions were chosen for the test so the students wouldn’t know exactly which ones were coming up. They may have recognised some questions when they opened their exam paper but I believe they got more out of researching and writing those questions than they would have from memorising the words during a period of self-study.
- Have alternatives, not additions
And, finally, I would like to return to a point made earlier in the post. Alternatives to ‘traditional’ assessment are all well and good but they must be used to replace or at least reduce the emphasis on exams. What I have seen happen in several schools is that portfolios, project work, external exams and so on are all added on top of the existing assessment system. This leads to a never-ending cycle of work and pressure for the kids and preparing, supervising and marking for the teachers. Ideally, these assessment alternatives should mean that in place of say four written tests a semester, students have perhaps two tests and then graded project and portfolio work. If exams must stay, let them stay but if we want to explore alternatives, they should be just that – alternatives, not additions. And as for the exams themselves, let’s try to make them positive and rewarding experiences for our young learners that help them develop, reflect and grow.
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