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Helping hand: Good languages assessment

13 June 2013

Effective assessment tools provide a helping hand for second language teachers and that’s good news in any language, as Bernadette Brouwers explains.

In the busy world of day-to-day school life, teachers can sometimes feel that assessment is simply an additional burden to their already crowded days of lesson preparation, teaching and attending meetings. Further to this, language teachers often have the additional pressure of promoting their subject in the context of competing curriculum demands.

So, why should we make time for and, indeed, ensure that a good variety of assessments are thoroughly integrated into our teaching and learning programs in languages? There are many reasons. Not least, good assessment allows us to gauge exactly what students know and understand, and what students can do. Good assessment identifies learning problems and gaps in student learning. Good assessment also provides a mechanism for us to reflect on the effectiveness of our teaching and learning program and make adjustments to improve the teaching and learning opportunities for our students.

The Assessment of Language Competence (ALC) tests, developed by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), provide valuable support to teachers in doing all of the above. From its early days as the Australian Language Certificates, the ALC project has grown into an internationally recognised suite of second language tests designed to assist teachers in making assessments of their students in primary and secondary schools. As a reflection of its wider impact, the ALC is now known as the Assessment of Language Competence tests.

What is the ALC?

The ALC comprises listening and reading tests in seven languages which are offered at three competency levels: Certificate 1 (listening only) for students who have completed between approximately 80 to 100 hours of prior learning; Certificate 2 (listening and reading) for students who have completed between approximately 100 to 200 hours of prior learning; and Certificate 3 (listening and reading) for students who have completed between approximately 200 to 300 hours of prior learning.
The languages offered are French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Spanish and Chinese. Recent feedback has suggested that there may be interest in a future test for Arabic.

Tests are not tied to a particular curriculum framework so as to provide access to students across a wide variety of school programs.

What do the tests look like?

ALC tests focus on the receptive skills of listening and reading. Each certificate level includes 28 multiple-choice questions in the listening section and 32 multiple-choice questions in the reading section. The tests are enhanced with lively graphics, where appropriate.

While the tests will eventually be administered online, they are currently provided in pen-and-paper format and include a CD for the listening component.

How are the tests developed?

Expert writers are employed by ACER to develop an entirely new bank of items from year to year. Writers have both expertise in the language of the test and extensive experience in language assessment. The item development process takes place via a wiki and items are intensively vetted along the way. Once the items have been finalised, the draft tests are subject to a process of second vetting, proofreading and trialling before reaching the final printing stage. What do the test items look like?

All ALC test items are multiple-choice. While the texts are all in the target language, items are generally in English at Certificate 1 level although there are a number of items in the target language at Certificate 2 and Certificate 3 levels. Writers develop authentic texts and questions based around a wide variety of topics relevant to young people’s interests. Test items cover a broad range of item intents and allow for the assessment of more literal skills such as locating a single piece of information within a text to asking students to identify the main idea in a text or infer details. Figure 1 illustrates a typical item at Certificate 2 level.

How are the tests administered?

Schools register their students for the tests. At the time of registration, schools can also purchase a School Report and a copy of the Voice CD Transcripts. A Teacher Handbook is also provided to schools at no cost and is available on the ALC project website. An annotated sample of the School Report is shown in Figure 2.

All test materials are despatched to schools at least one week before the test dates. Answer sheets are returned to ACER for processing and results are sent to schools.

What will the test results tell me?

Once results have been processed, all students receive an individual Student Certificate showing their results for both listening and reading at High Distinction, Distinction, Credit or Participation band level.

The ALC School Report provides an insight into student and cohort or group performance in the areas of Listening and Reading for each language and level for which the school is registered. Comparative data on cohort performance against other schools is also provided in band levels.

Schools can ask a range of questions to help them best use the data available in the School Reports. Questions may relate to performance at individual student, class or whole-school level. Schools may also examine performance in the skill areas of listening and reading or make comparisons across languages.

How can and do schools use the ALC?

Schools use the ALC tests for a number of reasons. Some schools use the ALC as an informal mechanism to benchmark their students in a wider group, while other schools use the data as an integral part of their annual whole-school data collection on student performance.

Many schools find that the ALC helps in promoting language learning in their school community and distribute ALC Student Certificates at major school assemblies. ALC results are also published in school newsletters.

The ALC provides schools with a long-standing and highly respected tool to support good assessment in second language programs. ■

Read more about the Assessment of Language Competence tests at <www.acer.edu.au/tests/alc>

RD

About the author

Bernadette Brouwers was formerly the Assessment of Language Competence project director at ACER.

More [rd] articles by Bernadette Brouwers

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