PBLA is an assessment approach grounded in theory, principles, and practice. It has been informed by theoretical developments in classroom- and teacher-based assessment and Assessment for Learning (AfL), as well as the principles of the Canadian Language Benchmarks. In addition, the PBLA approach incorporates insights from a formal field test conducted in Ottawa ON by Carleton University, Ottawa, from 2010 to 2012, and from several extended applications of PBLA in LINC classrooms in Fredericton, Moncton, and Saint John, NB, and Edmonton, AB.
Historically, assessment and evaluation of learning outcomes have been test-driven. The use of tests to assess learning outcomes is consistent with a conception of learning as an accumulation of discrete, hierarchical, knowledge-based elements. Tests, particularly standardized tests developed by external “experts” for large-scale use, have typically been administered at the end of a learning period. The teacher’s role has primarily been relegated to test preparation and exam invigilation. However, in recent years, conceptions of curriculum planning and teaching based on learner needs have become dominant. At the same time, there has been an increasing call for teachers to monitor learner progress on an ongoing basis. These trends have prompted a growing interest by educators in alternative approaches to assessment, approaches that are consistent with instructional imperatives and that recognize the professional role of teachers in assessment (Davison and Leung, 2009; Leahy and Wiliam, 2011; Black and Wiliam, 1998; Daugherty, 2011).
Advantages of Classroom-Based Assessment
According to Davison and Leung, classroom- or teacher-based assessment can be distinguished from other forms of assessment in several important ways. Classroom-based assessment has the following characteristics:
It involves the teacher from the beginning to the end: from planning the assessment programme, through to identifying and/or developing appropriate assessment tasks right through to making the assessment judgments.
It allows for the collection of a number of samples of learner work over a period of time, using a variety of different tasks and activities.
It can be adapted and modified by the teacher to match the teaching and learning goals of the particular class and learners being assessed.
It is carried out in ordinary classrooms, not in a specialist assessment centre or examination hall.
It is conducted by the learners’ own teacher, not a stranger.
It involves learners more actively in the assessment process, especially if self and peer assessment are used in conjunction with teacher assessment.
It opens up the possibility for teachers to support learner-led enquiry.
It allows the teacher to give immediate and constructive feedback to learners.
It stimulates continuous evaluation and adjustment of the teaching and learning programme.
It complements other forms of assessment, including external examinations.
(Davison and Leung, 2009, pp. 395-396)
Extends the range and diversity of assessment collection opportunities, task types, and assessors
Assesses work being done within the classroom; less possibility of cheating as teacher knows student capabilities; assessments more likely to be realistic
Improves validity through assessing factors that cannot be included in public exam settings
Improves reliability by having more than one assessment by a teacher who is familiar with the student; allows for multiple opportunities for assessor reflection/standardization
Fairness is achieved by following commonly agreed processes, outcomes and standards; teacher assumptions about students and their oral language levels are made explicit through collaborative sharing and discussion with other teachers
Students can receive constructive feedback immediately after the assessment has finished, hence improving learning
Ongoing assessment encourages students to work consistently; provides important data for evaluation of teaching and assessment practices in general
Teacher and Learner Empowerment
Teachers and students become part of the assessment process; collaboration and sharing of expertise takes place within and across schools
Builds teacher assessment skills, which can be transferred to other areas of the curriculum
Practicality and Cost
Once teachers are trained, teacher-based assessment is much cheaper as integrated into normal curriculum; undertaken by class teachers as part of everyday teaching; avoids wasting valuable teaching time on practice tests
Source: Table 2, from Davison and Leung (2009, pp 402-403).
Reliability and Validity of Classroom-Based Assessment
Assessment by teachers has the potential for providing valid and reliable information about learners’ achievements since teachers can build up a picture of learners’ attainments across the full range of activities and goals. In the past, critics have raised concerns that teacher-based assessment is unreliable and subject to bias. In 2004, in response to these concerns, Wynne Harlen of the University of Cambridge undertook a systematic review of 30 papers for the EPPI Centre of the University of London, England, in order to provide research evidence for the dependability of summative assessment by teachers and the conditions that affect it. He found that classroom-based assessment carried out by teachers is both reliable and valid when the following criteria are met:
Programs display a constructive and positive assessment culture.
Assessment is related to learners’ learning goals.
There are clear standards, required protocols, and appropriate resources to conduct assessment.
There are rigorous procedures for quality assurance and quality control of teachers’ judgments.
There is access to sufficient and appropriate assessment tasks, tools, and other resources.
There is professional development for teachers and supportive monitoring of assessment practices (Harlen, 2004).
PBLA protocols, resources, supports and monitoring procedures are intended to ensure these critical conditions are in place to support the reliability and validity of PBLA in the classroom.
Alignment to the Canadian Language Benchmarks
As outlined in the introduction of Canadian Language Benchmark: English as a Second Language for Adults, the CLB standard provides the following:
In the Canadian Language Benchmarks, a language task is understood to be a communicative “real-world” instance of language use to accomplish a specific purpose in a particular context.
– Canadian Language Benchmarks, p IX
A national standard for planning curricula for language instruction in a variety of contexts
A framework of reference for learning, teaching, programming, and assessing adult English as a Second Language (ESL) in Canada
A common yardstick for assessing learning outcomes
A set of descriptive statements about successive levels of achievement on the continuum of ESL performance
Descriptions of communicative competencies and performance tasks through which the learner demonstrates application of language knowledge (competence) and skill (proficiency)
A descriptive scale of communicative proficiency in ESL expressed as 12 benchmarks or reference pointsA framework of reference for learning, teaching, programming, and assessing adult English as a Second Language (ESL) in Canada
The CLB standard also reflects fundamental principles about second language learning, teaching, assessment, and evaluation:
The CLB standard is learner-centred.
Instruction is based on the needs and goals of learners
Learners are informed and involved in decision making.
The CLB standard is task-based.
Performance is best determined through task-based assessment.
Instruction is task-based.
Tasks are based on real-world issues and events and use authentic text.
The CLB standard stresses community, study, and work-related tasks.
The CLB outcomes are free of context; therefore, they are taught in context through various topics or themes.
The CLB standard is competency based.
Competency statements describe what learners can do.
Communicative competence requires organizational knowledge, including grammatical and textual knowledge; pragmatic knowledge, including functional and sociolinguistic knowledge; and strategic competence.
These principles are embedded in CLB-based curriculum, teaching, and assessment practices; indeed, CLB principles are fundamental to PBLA.
These are examples of language tasks:
Asking for help with a classroom assignment
Following a set of 5 to 7 oral instructions to assemble a piece of furniture
Reading a prescription label
Filling out a job application form
Completing a fill-in-the-blank grammar exercise is NOT a language task. It is a skill-building learning activity focused on a discrete skill.
Assessment for Learning (AfL) Strategies
In 1998, Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam of King’s College, London, undertook an extensive and seminal literature review of more than 250 publications to determine if assessment improves learning. Their findings, published in the journal Assessment in Education, conclude not only that assessment can raise standards but that it is one of the most powerful educational tools for promoting effective learning. They also found evidence that the learning gain as a result of assessment is likely to be even more substantial for lower-achieving learners, information that may be of particular interest to ESL Literacy teachers. They and other researchers – notably Hattie (2009), and Bullock, Bishop, Martin, and Reid (2002) – support Black and Wiliam, adding that the particular approach to assessment is a key determiner of its impact. For example, there is no evidence that increasing the amount of testing alone will enhance learning: teachers can administer multiple assessment tasks, but that in itself will not make a difference in learner learning. Instead, it is assessment that is planned for and goal driven, and that engages teachers and learners in reflection and dialogue that has the most impact.
Assessment that is explicitly designed to promote learning is the single most powerful tool we have for both raising standards and empowering lifelong learners.
Assessment Reform Group, Assessment for Learning: Beyond the Black Box (1999)
Don’t do more assessment; do more with assessment.
Since Black and Wiliam’s 1998 findings, assessment reformers have emphasized the need for a closer, substantive connection between assessment and meaningful instruction. They argue that effective assessment practice is about much more than simply teaching and testing as discrete endeavours. Rather, effective assessment embeds an assessment approach in all instructional practice. Based on extensive research and work with classroom teachers, Leahy, Lyon, Thompson, and Wiliam (2005) identified five key Assessment for Learning (AfL) strategies, all of which are fundamental to PBLA. Ongoing and effective use of these strategies in teaching and assessment supports learner autonomy and can have a powerful impact on learner learning over time. Following are some techniques to implement the five AfL strategies, many of which are from drawn from Embedded Formative Assessment by Wiliam (2011).
Clarify learning intents and criteria for success
Language learning is enhanced when the intentions or goals of learning and the criteria for success are transparent to learners.
Assess needs to identify goals.
Have learners set goals that stretch them but are achievable and reasonable within the duration of the term or course.
Clarify how lessons or tasks relate to goals.
Have learners use agreed-on criteria to review and rank exemplars of different quality.
Develop criteria with learners.
Share assessment criteria prior to assessment.
Incorporate classroom activities that elicit evidence of learning
Language learning is enhanced when teachers include activities that cause learners to think or provide teachers with information that they can use to adjust instruction to meet learning needs.
Plan and pose questions that enable teachers to check for understanding rather than just for correct answers.
Use techniques to monitor understanding that include all learners and do not interrupt the flow of the lesson, such as the following:
Ask random learners to answer questions rather than only those who indicate they know the answer.
Distribute green and red “traffic light” cards, which learners “flash” to indicate their level of understanding (green = understand, red = don’t understand).
Provide feedback that moves learners forward
Language learning is enhanced when feedback, linked to criteria, is action-oriented and addresses what the learner needs to do to improve.
Provide “comments only” feedback. Research shows that marks and grades do not enhance learning.
Provide action-oriented feedback that gives learners a way forward. Ego-oriented feedback, such as “Good job!” may encourage learners but does not move their learning forward.
Use tools such as the feedback grid shown below to focus feedback on what the learners should continue to do, what they should start to do or do more of, what they might think about as their next challenge, and what they should stop doing.
Prioritize feedback. Address the most critical needs first and limit suggestions to one or two specific ideas.
Keep feedback succinct, specific, and related to goals and criteria. Three seems to be an optimal number of feedback comments if learners are to act on them.
Have learners do something with the feedback: for example, “Correct the errors in your paragraph, and then rewrite it.”
Offer feedback by beginning anywhere on the grid and working all the way around.
Comment on aspects of performance that were in effective. Be specific and describe impact. Highlight things that you would like to see done the future.
Start or do more…
Identify behaviour that the learner knows how to do and should do, or do more frequently.
Highlight a point of growth for the learner, a “do-able” challenge for future interactions.
Stop or do less…
Point out actions that were not helpful or could be harmful. Be specific and indicate potential impact.
Activate learners to become instructional resources for one another
Language learning is enhanced when learners engage in peer-assessment focused on learning.
Have learners conduct a “pre-flight checklist.” Before a learner can submit a task, require him or her to get a peer to complete a pre-flight checklist, which lists key elements that must be included or addressed in the task. The learner cannot hand in the task until the peer completing the checklist signs off on it. The peer is accountable for anything that is missed.
Set ground rules for peer-assessment.
Have learners use agreed-on assessment criteria.
Have learners use basic forms to give feedback.
Activate learners to become owners of their learning
Language learning is enhanced when learners take ownership of their learning and use agreed-on criteria to carry out self-assessment and learning reflection.
Have learners use Can-Do Statements1 to assess themselves regularly (focused on what the learner can do and how well).
Encourage learners to conduct learning reflections regularly to monitor what they have learned, what was easy or hard, what they might do differently, and what they should do next.
Below is a sample of a learning reflection technique called “One-Minute Paper.” It can be adapted for learners at different levels.
Help me prepare for our next class. Tell me about your learning today. Answer these questions.
1. Here’s what I learned today:
2. Here are some questions I still have:
3. Here are some things I don’t understand well enough to ask about:
Other comments or suggestions:
Source: Adapted from Walsh, A. (2006).
1The updated Can Do Statements are downloadable from the CCLB website, www.language.ca.