ERIC Identifier: ED325658
Publication Date: 1990-00-00
Author: Imel, Susan
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult Career and Vocational Education
Adult Literacy Learner Assessment. ERIC Digest No.
Learner assessment, the process of collecting and analyzing data provided
by learners in order to make judgments about the literacy accomplishments
of individuals or groups, is a key feature of adult literacy programs.
Learner assessment occurs in different forms throughout an adult's participation
in a literacy program. It frequently reflects different views of literacy
and learning and yields distinct types of information to different stakeholders.
It provides information to teachers for use in instructional planning,
to learners for determining their progress toward particular goals, to
program managers and staff for evaluating the impact of instruction, and
to funders for establishing some degree of program accountability and success
(Lytle and Wolfe 1989).
Four major types of approaches to learner assessment have been identified
in the literature: standardized testing, materials based, competency based,
and participatory. This ERIC Digest provides an overview of these four
assessment approaches, including some issues affiliated with each. It ends
with some suggested guidelines for selecting assessment procedures.
APPROACHES TO LEARNER ASSESSMENT
Each of the four approaches to learner assessment described here reflects
varying philosophical orientations and perspectives related to learners,
literacy, and educational contexts.
Because standardized tests are relatively easy and inexpensive to administer,
standardized testing is the most widely used approach in adult literacy
assessment in the United States. Large groups of adults can take a test
under the supervision of a comparatively small number of administrators.
In addition, the training requirements to administer the test are minimal
By definition, a standardized test is designed to be given under specified,
standard conditions. If it is not, the results are invalid (Business Council
for Effective Literacy 1990; Sticht 1990). Standardized tests may be either
norm- or criterion-referenced. Many of the standardized tests of reading
used in adult literacy programs are norm-referenced, that is, they measure
an individual's performance against a "normal" performance established
by others who have taken the test (BCEL 1990; Lytle and Wolfe 1989). Criterion-referenced
tests, on the other hand, assess a learner's achievement against an absolute
standard or criterion of performance rather than against a norming group
Despite their extensive use in adult literacy assessment, standardized
tests have a number of critics among researchers and practitioners. According
to the BCEL (1990), the "objections [to standardized tests] tend to fall
into two broad categories: their intrinsic defects and their misuse" (p.
6). The major intrinsic defect is the fact that they rely on grade-level
equivalents, i.e., they have been normed on children. Such measures do
not reveal the extent of the life experiences and knowledge that adults
bring to an instructional program nor do they provide data that can be
used in developing an appropriate instructional program. Other difficulties
in the use of standardized tests involve the relationship of the tests
to a program's instructional model and the fact that many adults associate
them with previous school failure (BCEL 1990; Lytle and Wolfe 1989).
The misuse of standardized tests relates to the practice of employing
them as the sole component of program evaluation. Although learner assessment
is an important component of program evaluation, a number of other elements
such as program management, teaching, and curriculum need to be examined
in judging program effectiveness (BCEL 1990).
Improvements that address some of their intrinsic defects are being
made in standardized tests. The Degrees of Reading Power test uses cloze
passages and therefore reflects more current views of the reading process
as the construction of reading. Item response theory, a psychometric theory
that takes into account certain factors such as item difficulty, is also
being applied in some standardized tests (Lytle and Wolfe 1989).
Materials-based assessment refers to the practice of evaluating learners
on the basis of tests following the completion of a particular set of curriculum
materials. It shares some features with standardized tests such as availability
through commercial publishers, ease of administration, and a view of literacy
as reading skills.
Although the materials-based approach to assessment makes possible a
close connection between curriculum and assessment, it creates a closed
system that does not invite analysis of teaching processes and materials.
Because most of the curriculum is prepackaged, there is little opportunity
for learners to direct their own study. Also, the literacy activities beyond
the system go unassessed and may not be recognized as meaningful by learners
and teachers (Lytle and Wolfe 1989).
Closely related to criterion-referenced standardized testing, competency-based
adult literacy assessment measures an individual's performance against
a predetermined standard of acceptable performance. Progress is based on
actual performance rather than on how well learners perform in comparison
to others (Lytle and Wolfe 1989; Sticht 1990).
Competency-based education and assessment were developed in response
to the need to assess adult literacy achievement within a functional framework.
Because it recognizes the importance of prior learning and rewards what
individuals can already do, it is more compatible for use with adults than
standardized testing or the materials-based approach. Assessment is also
frequent, providing learners with regular feedback and allowing them to
advance when ready (Lytle and Wolfe 1989).
Despite its compatibility with adult education philosophy and practice,
competency-based assessment also has its critics. Because competency-based
assessment usually takes place within the educational setting, it is still
a test given under classroom conditions; thus a key theoretical concept
of successful functioning in life roles is removed from the assessment
process. Some critics also contend that, like the materials-based approach,
competency-based assessment systems control and restrict teaching and learning
Participatory assessment is a process that views assessment as much
more than testing. Features of participatory assessment include a view
of literacy as practices and critical reflection, the use of a broad range
of strategies in assessment, and an active role for learners in the assessment
process (BCEL 1990; Lytle and Wolfe 1989). Those advocating a participatory
approach do so because of a belief that "learners, their characteristics,
aspirations, backgrounds, and needs should be at the center of literacy
instruction" (Fingeret and Jurmo 1989, p. 5).
The following assumptions support the participatory assessment process:
"the paramount purpose of assessment should be to help the learner achieve
his or her goals; what is assessed must reflect what the learner wishes
or needs to accomplish; the process must build on the learner's experience
and strengths rather than deficits; assessment is not something done to
the learner; [and] it should not be externally imposed nor shrouded in
mystery, nor separated from what goes on in the regular course of learning
activity" (BCEL 1990, p. 7).
Sometimes known as "alternative assessment approaches or methods" (BCEL
1990; Sticht 1990), elements of participatory assessment have been adopted
by a number of adult literacy educators. The Adult Literacy Evaluation
Project (ALEP) in Philadelphia is a project that includes many features
of participatory assessment. This collaborative research project has developed
alternatives to standardized tests and grade-level equivalences in measuring
progress in literacy. The California Adult Learner Progress Evaluation
Process, a joint program of the California State Libraries/California Literacy
Campaign and the Educational Testing Service, also employs some participatory
approaches to assessment. It uses forms developed for joint use by tutors
and learners but that are written with the learner as the primary audience
(Lytle and Wolfe 1989).
Despite its congruency with many of the assumptions underlying good
adult education practice, participatory assessment is not without its critics.
One question has to do with whether the use of alternate forms of assessment--rather
than standardized tests--leads to less demanding levels of achievement.
Also, sole reliance on nonstandardized methods makes it difficult to make
comparisons with other programs for the purpose of program evaluation (Sticht
Given the plethora of approaches and instruments available for assessing
adult literacy learners, what should guide the decisions about which to
use? Nurss (1989) suggests the following questions be considered in selecting
assessment instruments and procedures for use in adult literacy: What is
the purpose of the assessment?, Is the assessment instrument appropriate
for use with adults?, How reliable, practical, and valid is the instrument?,
Is the instrument culturally sensitive?, and Is there congruence between
the instrument/approach and the instruction.
According to Lytle and Wolfe (1989) "of prime importance seems to be
the degree of congruence between particular approaches and a program's
curricula and teaching practices" (p. 57). However, some interpret "the
degree of congruence" to mean that both instruction and assessment should
be standardized. Also, some question whether any single measure is capable
of capturing the repertoire of skills and strategies an individual needs
to accomplish a variety of literacy tasks.
Because of the variety of learner goals and accomplishments, multiple
methods of assessment seem logical. Such an approach provides learners,
teachers, and other stakeholders with multiple views of learner accomplishments.
This ERIC Digest is based on the following publication: Lytle, S. L.,
and Wolfe, M. Adult Literacy Education: Program Evaluation and Learner
Assessment. Information Series no. 338. Columbus: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Adult, Career, and Vocational Education, Center on Education and Training
for Employment, The Ohio State University, 1989. (ERIC Document Reproduction
Service No. ED 315 665).
Business Council for Effective Literacy. "Standardized Tests: Their
Use and Misuse." BCEL Newsletter for the Business Community no. 22, (January
1990): 1, 6-9. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 314 636).
Fingeret, A., and Jurmo, P., eds. Participatory Literacy Education.
New Directions for Continuing Education no. 42. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass,
Nurss, J. R. Assessment Models & Instruments: Adult Populations.
Atlanta: Center for the Study of Adult Literacy, Georgia State University,
November 1989. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 313 572).
Sticht, T. G. Testing and Assessment in Adult Basic Education and English
as a Second Language Programs. San Diego: Applied Behavioral and Cognitive
Sciences, Inc., January 1990. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED