Can-Do Assessments: An Update

Image by Wokandapix on Pixabay

Image by Wokandapix on Pixabay

In an early post on this blog I talked about making assessments based on what students “can do” with language.  This year, as we redo our Intermediate Arabic curriculum, we also decided to have no tests.  In some ways, this is just a change in terminology, as we have a week of Can-Do Assessments at the end of each unit, in which we repurpose some of our old test materials.  In other ways, it is new, as even the materials we repurpose (such as a description of a celebration for students to read, describe to their partner, and then choose which student’s celebration they will attend) are very different from the traditional language tests I took as an Arabic student, and gave my students in the early days of my career.  These usually had a vocabulary section (such as a cloze test), some grammar drills (e.g. fill in the correct verb form), and a skill section (reading or listening plus comprehension questions or a writing prompt). 

Now that we’ve had Can-Do Assessments for four units (housing, party, celebrations, and education), I thought I’d give an update on what is going well, and what can be improved from my perspective.  

What’s going well

1) Clear path from lessons to assessment: Because each lesson has a Can-Do and falls under a theme, there is a clear buildup to the assessment, as opposed to just a “test on chapter 7” (what does that even mean outside of the textbook?)

2) Clear relation to language functions: Instead of testing discrete vocabulary or grammar items (which really only makes sense in a class informed by folklinguistic language ideologies), we can focus on things we do with language, such as explaining the importance of language learning, planning a party, renting an apartment, or asking questions to a study abroad student

3) Impact beyond the classroom: While we haven’t managed this for every assessment, giving it life beyond just the students and teachers in our classroom makes it seem more authentic.  For example, having a real party, interacting with higher level students, or making projects that will be seen by other people on campus.  

4) Less anxiety: Even when students are doing literally the same activities that we called a “test” last year, there is significantly less anxiety in the room.  

5) Showcasing our students’ skills: When we give students an idea of the content we want them to demonstrate, but let them choose the form, it turns out to be way more interesting.  For example, last year they had to write a persuasive letter to the provost arguing for this importance of learning languages.  This year, they had to do the same thing, but got to choose the form.  While one group went with the letter, another made a plurilingual video, and a third made a meme.  Much more interesting to experience (and grade!).  

6) Integrating multiple modes of communication: Instead of having a “writing test” or a “listening test”, we can work across modes of communication, for example by reading about a celebration, discussing with a partner which celebration to attend, and then writing about that decision.  

What can be improved

1) Timing: Last year, we tried several lessons then an assessment, and this year we are doing four weeks of lessons, then a week of assessments plus reflection.  This is better, but still doesn’t seem quite right.  I’d also like to give students more time to polish some of the assignments, as I think this is what you would do with some of them in real life.  

2) Rubrics: While we want to be consistent in our grading across units and assessments, it’s hard to make a general rubric to cover vastly different assignments that is still meaningful.  We might need a series of rubrics, for example one for presentational, one for interpersonal, and so on? But then, how do we allow students to choose different forms for the assignment? So this is a work in progress.  

3) Specificity of instructions: Related to the point about rubrics, sometimes it’s hard to give specific instructions and also give students a lot of flexibility.  Students also vary in how much specificity versus freedom they would like.  

4) Impact beyond the classroom: While we’ve had some success (as described above) it would be nice to have all of the assessments extend beyond the classroom, not just some of them

5) Anxiety and seriousness: The flip side of point 4 above is that sometimes students are less dedicated when it’s not officially called a test.  While I still prefer this to high levels of anxiety, and they are certainly more dedicated when there is impact beyond the classroom, I feel like we’re still working to balance this.  

So, that is our assessment update! How do you do assessments? What are your challenges?