Adult ESL Learner Assessment: Purposes and Tools.
by Burt, Miriam - Keenan, Fran
Learner assessment is conducted in adult basic education (ABE) and adult
English as a Second Language (ESL) educational programs for many reasons--to
place learners in appropriate instructional levels, to measure their ongoing
progress, to qualify them to enroll in academic or job training programs,
to verify program effectiveness, and to demonstrate learner gains in order
to justify continued funding for a program. Because of this multiplicity
of objectives, learner assessment involves using a variety of instruments
and procedures to gather data on a regular basis to ensure that programs
are "identifying learners' needs, documenting the learners' progress toward
meeting their own goals, and ascertaining the extent to which the project
objectives are being met" (Holt, 1994, p. 6).
This digest looks at learner assessment in adult ESL programs. It describes
commercially available tests and alternative assessment tools, discusses
key issues in assessment, and highlights some of the differences between
assessment and evaluation.
COMMERCIALLY AVAILABLE TESTS
In adult basic education, commercially available instruments such as
the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE) and the Adult Basic Learning Examination
(ABLE) predominate as assessment tools because they have construct validity
and scoring reliability, are easy to administer to groups, require minimal
training on the part of the teacher, and are often stipulated by funding
sources (Solorzano, 1994; Wrigley, 1992). ESL tests most commonly used
in adult education programs are the Basic English Skills Test (BEST) and
the CASAS ESL Appraisal (Sticht, 1990).
The BEST, originally developed by the Center for Applied Linguistics
in 1982 to test newly arrived Southeast Asian refugees, assesses English
literacy (reading and writing) skills and listening and speaking skills.
Although this test measures language and literacy skills at the lowest
levels (no speaking is necessary for some items as learners respond to
pictures by pointing), it requires some training on the part of the tester.
Also, the oral segment is lengthy and must be administered individually
The Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment System (CASAS) of California
has developed competencies, training manuals, and assessment tools for
ABE and ESL programs. The CASAS ESL Appraisal is multiple choice and includes
reading and listening items. It is easy to administer because it is given
to groups, but does not test oral skills (Sticht, 1990).
Other tests used for ESL are the NYSPLACE Test, published by New York
State, which is designed for placement and includes a basic English literacy
screening and an oral assessment; the Basic Inventory of Natural Language
(BINL) which provides a grammatical analysis of spoken language; the Henderson-Moriarty
ESL Placement (HELP) test which was designed to measure the literacy skills
(in the native language and in English) and the oral English proficiency
of Southeast Asian refugee adults; and Literacy Volunteers of America's
ESL Oral Assessment (ESLOA) which assesses a learner's ability to speak
and understand English.
LIMITATIONS OF COMMERCIALLY AVAILABLE TESTS
The use of commercially available tests with adult learners is problematic
because these tools may not adequately assess individual learner strengths
and weaknesses especially at the lowest level of literacy skills. Such
tests do not necessarily measure what has been learned in class, nor address
learner goals (Lytle & Wolf, 1989; Wrigley, 1992).
Some testing issues are unique to ESL learners. It is not always clear
whether ESL learners have trouble with selected test items because of difficulties
with reading, with the vocabulary, or with the cultural notions underlying
the test items (Wrigley & Guth, 1992). Another problem may be that
some low-literate ESL learners are unfamiliar with classroom conventions
such as test taking. Henderson and Moriarty, in their introduction to the
HELP test, advise that ESL programs should evaluate whether learners possess
the functional skills necessary for writing (such as holding a pencil),
are familiar with classroom behaviors (such as responding to teacher questions),
and are able to keep up with the pace of learning in beginning level classes
(Wrigley and Guth, 1992).
Some would argue that the tests themselves are not the problem, but
rather their inappropriate use, for example, administering a commercially
available adult "literacy" test (assesses reading and writing skills) to
measure English language "proficiency" (listening and speaking ability).
Funding stipulations may specify inappropriate instruments (Solorzano,
1994) or even tests developed for native speakers (e.g., TABE, ABLE). Wilde
(1994) suggests that programs maximize the benefits of commercially available,
norm-referenced, and diagnostic tests by: (1) choosing tests that match
the demographic and educational backgrounds of the learners; (2) interpreting
scores carefully; (3) ensuring that test objectives match the program objectives
and curricular content; and (4) using additional instruments to measure
ALTERNATIVES TO COMMERCIALLY AVAILABLE TESTS
Due in part to the drawbacks of the tests described above, many adult
(and K-12) educators promote the use of alternative assessment tools that
incorporate learner goals and relate more closely to instruction (Lytle
& Wolfe, 1989). Alternative assessment (also known as classroom-based,
authentic, or congruent assessment) includes such tools as surveys, interviews,
checklists, observation measures, teacher-developed tests, learner self-assessment,
portfolios and other performance samples, and performance-based tests (Balliro,
1993; Genesee, 1994; Isserlis, 1992; Wrigley, 1992).
Alternative assessment allows for flexibility in gathering information
about learners and measures what has been taught in class. "Learner portfolios,"
collections of individual work, are common examples of alternative assessment.
Portfolios can include such items as reports on books read, notes from
learner/teacher interviews, learners' reflections on their progress, writing
samples, data from performance-based assessments, "and" scores on commercially
available tests (Fingeret, 1993; Wrigley, 1992). From "learner interviews,"
administrators and instructors get information to help with placement decisions
and to determine an individual's progress. In one survey of adult teachers,
80% reported using oral interviews to assess what students needed and what
they were learning (Davis and Yap, 1992). From program-developed "performance-based
tests," instructors, administrators, and the learners themselves get information
on how learners use English and basic skills regularly. These tests, in
which items (such as reading a chart or locating information on a schedule)
are put in actual contexts the learners might encounter (Alamprese &
Kay, 1993; Holt, 1994), are common in workplace programs. Authentic materials
such as job schedules, pay stubs, and union contracts provide the context
in which literacy skills are assessed.
Alternative assessment procedures, however, are not a panacea. Maintaining
portfolios is time consuming for both learners and teachers. The cultural
expectations and educational backgrounds of ESL learners might make them
especially resistant to the use of participatory and other alternative
assessments (Wrigley & Guth, 1992). Furthermore, funders often require
"hard data," and it is difficult to quantify outcomes without using commercially
available tests. Finally, data from alternative assessment instruments
may not meet eligibility requirements for job training programs, or higher
level classes, or certification (Balliro, 1993; Lytle & Wolfe, 1989).
Because of these issues, ESL programs often use a combination of commercially
available and program-developed assessment instruments to assess literacy
and language proficiency (Guth & Wrigley, 1992; Wrigley, 1992).
LEARNER ASSESSMENT AND PROGRAM EVALUATION
Although learner progress, as measured both by commercially available
and alternative assessment instruments, is an indicator of program effectiveness,
it is not the only factor in evaluating ABE and adult ESL programs. Other
quantifiable indicators include learner retention, learner promotion to
higher levels of instruction, and learner transition to jobs or to other
types of programs (e.g., moving from an adult ESL program to a vocational
program, or to a for-credit ESL or academic program). Less quantifiable
learner outcomes include heightened self-esteem and increased participation
in community, school, and church events (Alamprese & Kay, 1993).
Other measures of adult education program effectiveness depend to a
large extent on program goals. In family literacy programs, increased parental
participation in children's learning, parents reading more frequently to
their children, and the presence of more books in the home might indicate
success (Holt, 1994). Workplace program outcomes might include promotion
to higher level jobs, increased participation in work teams, and improved
worker attitude that shows up in better job attendance and in a willingness
to learn new skills (Alamprese & Kay, 1993).
Assessment is problematic for adult ESL educators searching for tools
that will quantify learner gains and program success to funders, demonstrate
improvement in English proficiency and literacy skills to learners, and
clarify for the educators themselves what has been learned and what has
not. Dissatisfaction with commercially available tools has been widespread,
and many teachers have felt left out of the process of determining how
to assess learner gains in a way that helps teaching "and" learning. Current
practice and theory seem to recommend using a combination of commercially
available and program-developed alternative assessment instruments. Further
research in this area both by teachers and researchers is warranted.
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