In this article, I will share some of my experiences and ideas on assessment, especially language assessment. As I write it, what I want to convey seems to vacillate between utter frustration and disillusionment on the one hand and a good deal of ‘we-can-do-it’ kind of optimism on the other. This ambivalence is not without reason. The negative feeling is largely due to the kind of summative assessments (SA) that secondary exam boards and universities conduct, year after year, with almost no research/review that feeds back into improved ways of designing and constructing such exams. It is the high-stakes, one-shot, paper-pencil exam, that invincible weapon, on which our students’ future lives depend.
The optimistic note comes from the possibility of what teachers can do in classrooms to support learning through formative assessment (FA). FAs help us monitor progress in the classroom and therefore enable us to individualise the kind of support each (type of) student needs to reach the target. Since it is the individual teacher who can design and implement FA in the classroom, we can hope to do it in such a way that millions of children in the classroom can benefit from it, regardless of how good or bad the SA is.
Let us first try and understand what these two types of assessment do. SAs are assessments of the products of learning which come at the end of a course and are a means to find out how well a student has met the intended objectives or goals of any instructional programme. They are meant to inform students, parents, schools/universities and others if the student has successfully completed the course of study on the basis of which decisions about the future course of action can be made. In the case of English language exams, they should be able to tell us how well the student can use the language for different purposes in a variety of contexts. In other words, they should tell us how well the students can read, write, listen and speak in English for different purposes.
The author is currently the Dean of Faculty of Education at Delhi University. Her research interests include English language teacher education and assessment. She can be reached at [email protected].