Toward Comprehensive Assessment in the Adult ESOL Classroom

Beatriz Diaz PhotoDr. Beatriz B. Diaz

Assessment in Adult ESOL programs encompasses everything from statewide standardized tests to everyday classroom observations. However, in this era of accountability, standards, and standardized tests, assessment is often done only to satisfy program or funding requirements. As we know, not all students show progress at the same time or in the same format. In other words, that weekly test and that written standardized assessment that teachers so readily have students take may not provide a complete picture of students’ strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, researchers recommend using a comprehensive approach to assessment, combining both summative and formative forms to evaluate student achievement, facilitate learning, and help students achieve mastery.

Overview of Summative Assessment

Summative assessment is most often equated with national and state standardized tests. However, there are many other tests that are summative in nature, for example, district or program exams that measure grade level skills, mid-term tests that measure interim student performance, and unit tests that evaluate student knowledge at the end of a unit.

All these tests are given at a specific time, under the same circumstances, so all students, regardless of learning style or type of intelligence, demonstrate what they know in a standard format. The data collected compares student performance using grades and/or percentiles and is frequently used for program accountability. This type of assessment helps teachers, districts, and states monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of a course, align curriculum, place or promote students, and fund programs. Because of the prevalence of this type of assessment, teachers need to provide students practice with answering multiple choice items, bubbling in answers, and other test-taking skills needed to succeed in standardized test formats.

Overview of Formative Assessment

In contrast, formative assessment is part of the day-to-day cycle of teaching-learning-assessing. It allows teachers to gather data in real-time and then make instructional adjustments, design interventions, and modify the learning environment to maximize teaching and learning. As a process, formative assessment has three main characteristics: it is real, cyclical, and ongoing. First, in order to accurately measure student comprehension, contexts and tasks should be real reflections of authentic language situations. The tools or tests used should not fragment language acquisition into parts because real language production is not simply the sum of isolated skills. In addition, the assessment process should be cyclical and ongoing. Just as a single exposure to a new word or form does not ensure comprehension, neither does a single evaluation indicate mastery.Circle

A Comprehensive Approach

Most teachers use summative assessments, both because they are required to do so and because they are more comfortable with them. If we agree that a more comprehensive approach to testing is desirable, we need to look at practical ways to incorporate formative assessment into the classroom so that students have alternative opportunities to demonstrate language acquisition in context. The question then is: How can we assess language acquisition effectively using formative assessment? In truth, it is hard for the teacher to continuously monitor students, capture language in “real” time, and re-teach material as needed. To be successful, teachers not only must be intentional in their own actions, but must actively involve students in the process. Here are some practical ways to do so.

Walk-around observations: Evaluate students while they are performing tasks by walking around the room and taking notes on what you see, hear, and notice. Be mindful of what students are not doing, too. Lack of performance is a good indicator of what needs to be re-taught. This task can be performed by the teacher or the more advanced students in the group. Take notes that you can later use to praise growth, discuss error patterns, and reinforce weak areas by re-teaching.

Peer feedback: Classmates can also help teachers assess skills by using checklists or rubrics to evaluate a student’s performance/ presentations. The teacher can create a list of observable behavior/production—for example, “the student used the verb be accurately” or “the student’s pronunciation was clear”—or the teacher can use the rubric found in a textbook or teacher’s edition. Students then use this tool to evaluate peers. This helps ensure that they actively participate by being required to assess “real language” in action. The teacher uses the same checklist/rubric and can also share comments with the class. In this way, students learn from each other, and from the teacher’s comments, by double checking to see if their observations were on track.

Self-monitoring: Build time into your lessons to teach students tools to self-correct or monitor their own learning. For example, during a reading task, students can highlight words they do not know as they read. Once they finish the selection, they can use context clues to figure out the meaning of the highlighted words, use a dictionary to help themselves, or get assistance from a classmate. Then they can write their highlighted words on the board or on a flip chart. The whole class can then evaluate individual and group vocabulary needs. The same process can be used for syntax patterns.

Accommodate different learning styles: Become familiar with individual student’s learning styles by conducting a survey at the beginning of the term to find out if students are visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners. Provide opportunities for students to show achievement in different forms. For example, in testing vocabulary knowledge, students can draw, act out, or write the vocabulary words. Crossword puzzles, word searches, bingo, or memory games can also be used.

Use charts instead of grades to show progress: Chart student progress instead of assigning individual grades. A graph shows progress more vividly, and a couple of low scores do not affect the overall progress. This method of measuring performance also allows students to learn how to create and read graphs, charts, and other graphic representations—a much needed skill in the workplace and in academics. Engaging students in record-keeping helps them to better understand their own learning and progress. Furthermore, this practice shifts some of the responsibility for grades and record-keeping back to the learner.

Measure performance in the community: Engage students in real-life activities that enhance language acquisition and measure their performance by collecting data on community activities. For example, have students use English in their neighborhoods by performing tasks such as going to the cafeteria or a restaurant, checking the menu for the daily specials, and reporting back to class or a group. Or have students interview a student in a higher level class and gather data on specific school-related topics. These real-life activities give students and teachers opportunities to evaluate performance in authentic environments.

Celebrate achievement: Behind every teachable moment there is an opportunity for meaningful assessment. All progress—big and small—must be recognized, celebrated, and honored as a milestone in a student’s journey toward mastery of English. Celebrate achievement with daily encouraging words and weekly classroom rewards (pencils, erasers, “stickies,” etc.) earned with points for performance in English. For the grand finale, give out certificates in an award ceremony at the end of a term—organize a day of celebration when students can invite guests. What a great opportunity to honor your students and recruit new ones for the next term!


In summary, comprehensive assessment involves both formative and summative evaluations. When combined, data produced from both types of assessment gives teachers a dynamic picture that accurately represents individual student achievement and overall class performance—a clear road map for success. Overall, comprehensive assessment as an integral part of the adult ESOL class can:

  • Engage adult ELLs in real-time learning and mastery of English
  • Accelerate authentic language acquisition
  • Facilitate and modify instruction for optimum teaching and learning
  • Assist adult ELLs in achieving educational gains to meet targeted local, state and national performance measures

Dr. Beatriz B. Diaz has taught ESL for more than three decades in Miami. She has a master’s degree in TESOL and a doctorate in education from Nova Southeastern University. She has given trainings and numerous presentations at international, national, state, and local conferences throughout the United States, the Caribbean, and South America. Dr. Diaz is the district supervisor for the Miami-Dade County Public Schools Adult ESOL Program, one of the largest in the United States.

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