Designing Meaningful Assessments in World Language Classes
Tests in the target language should gauge reading and listening comprehension as well as writing and conversational skills.
Lengthy, strictly grammar-based multiple-choice assessments are a trend of the past in world language classes. Rather than drilling students on particular grammatical points or vocabulary in isolation, meaningful world language assessments should focus on authentic, real-world scenarios in which students use the language in practical and realistic ways.
What does such an assessment look like? First and foremost, it should require students to tap into all of the communicative skills: listening, reading, writing, and speaking. Integrated performance assessments (IPAs) have taken flight in world language classes in recent years for this reason. They are composed of interpretive (reading or listening comprehension), interpersonal (two-way speaking or writing), and presentational (one-way speaking or writing) tasks.
While IPAs can become quite lengthy, it’s possible to assess students’ interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational skills in a more concise format. Most important, we must consider the following: What are we asking students to do when we assess them? What language structures are they using, and how are they developing their communicative skills?
For example, when guiding my novice, Level I language learners through a unit that focuses on the environment, I design the assessment first and plan backward. A goal of the unit is for students to describe the world around them in the target language of Spanish—this includes sharing characteristics of the current weather conditions, describing the seasons, and comparing and contrasting the climate of our local community with one in the Spanish-speaking world.
Within this unit, we also cover basic clothing items, and students are able to reflect upon what they need to wear according to the particular weather.
It’s also important to note that students become aware of the fact that outside of the United States, temperatures are in Celsius rather than Fahrenheit; this gives us the chance to touch upon a cultural point as well as another opportunity to practice numbers in Spanish. Checking the forecast is something that students can do in their everyday lives. Additionally, before traveling, students will familiarize themselves with the climate of the area they are visiting and pack accordingly. Hence, the language used in this unit applies to real-world situations and events.
Reading or Listening Comprehension
In the interpretive portion of this unit’s integrated performance assessment, students are able to demonstrate their comprehension of the material through relevant, authentic resources such as video clips, images, or texts.
First, I provide an authentic video clip in Spanish in which students watch and listen to the week’s weather forecast. They respond to a series of comprehension questions based on the clip. I then provide them with a map of Spain, showing weather conditions in different regions. This weather map includes numbers to indicate the day’s high temperatures, images that detail the current conditions (sun, clouds, rain, lighting, etc.), and specific city names (Madrid, Segovia, Toledo, Barcelona, and more).
Students are given a series of statements about the weather map in Spanish that they must identify as true or false. This is targeting the vocabulary studied throughout the unit related to weather patterns, climate, and numbers. Likewise, both the video clip and the weather map serve as authentic resources.
Two-Way Speaking or Writing
For the interpersonal task, I converse with each student one-on-one. I pose the following questions to the students in the target language of Spanish:
- How are you feeling today?
- What’s the weather like today? What do you think the temperature is?
- What’s the weather like during the year in our local community? How can you describe the four seasons?
- What is your favorite season and why?
As novice language learners, students are expected to mainly be reactive in the interpersonal exchange, given the fact that they are being asked spontaneous questions. I would advise teachers against pairing novice-level students together for an interpersonal exchange, as they will likely be unable to produce questions on the spot.
One-Way Speaking or Writing
For the presentational task, students write an email to a virtual pen pal in Spain who hopes to visit their local town in the United States. After viewing the weather map of Spain in the interpretive portion of the assessment, students are now given the task of sharing about their own community.
In their email, students describe the weather and current season in their local area. They can describe what they are wearing on a daily basis and can compare and contrast the weather in their local area with the weather they viewed in Spain in the interpretive part of the assessment. They can also tell their virtual pen pal what they need to pack and wear on their visit.
Overall, watching a weather forecast, taking a look at a weather map or report, and discussing the weather conditions are realistic, real-life situations. In the sample integrative performance assessment described, students are able to demonstrate their abilities with the language in an authentic way.
All language learners, especially beginners, need as much context as possible. Teaching the language in isolation is not only unproductive but also uninspiring. When students are exposed to authentic, culturally driven resources on a regular basis and in assessments, they are more likely to be engaged and motivated to immerse themselves in the language and culture.