Book Review: Assessment in the Classroom

“Assessment in the Classroom” was written by Annie Ward and Mildred-Murray Ward for Wadsworth Publishing Company in 1999. The book with its immaculate layout is intended to be used by students in an introductory course in educational measurement or as foundation for in-service training programs.

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The focus of the book is on classroom assessment and the text is written specifically to address classroom teachers at all levels of education. School administrators, department supervisors and trainers may find the book as a good source in developing and constructing in-service programs or as mere reference in evaluating the classroom teacher’s assessment tools. The goal according to Ward is “to help educators, whatever their current assignment, use a variety of assessments to plan for instruction, evaluate the success of the instruction, and evaluate the progress of individual students and group of students.”

The authors have specifically organized the contents of book as they would probably organize the course (as a subject) starting from stating aims-“What Will You Learn From This Book” to a Situationer and Historical and Founding Principles; defining and extensively discussing basic concepts, nature, purposes, levels and characteristics of measurement; preparing and writing a variety of assessments (pen and paper, direct observation and retrospective reports, portfolio assessment, performance and production tasks, etc) including external testing programs; evaluating and reporting and making recommendations for the results of varied tests; and some statistical analyses which also serve as the book’s special features.

The book does not require background on statistics or psychology as it is practically the bible of assessments. Some concepts such as validity and reliability are integrated and discussed in relation to specific assessment techniques. Some worksheets and sample assessments serve as suggestions from the authors as to how to go about preparing, writing, evaluating and reporting assessments. They seem to have avoided using complicated/technical jargons and math, making their book easy to read and the subject comprehensible.

Needless to say, the authors of the book have succeeded in providing not only a good source on classroom assessment, but also every answer to a teachers question on assessment. The book should be every classroom teacher’s bible to classroom assessment.

“Assessing Grammar”, written by James E. Purpura was first published by the Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge in 2004 and reprinted in 2005. The book contains nine chapters spread in more than two hundred ninety pages. With its immaculate layout, the book is intended to be used by students as an introductory course to grammar assessment or by language teachers in developing grammar ability tests.

The book places grammar in the context of functionality or communicative purpose. It suggests a new way of assessing grammar, innovating, if not, doing away with traditional and structural approaches, “an approach which reflects the belief that grammar cannot be treated as an isolated component of knowledge, but must be assessed in the larger context of language in communication.” (p.ix)

According to the series editors, the author of this book, James Purpura’s extensive experience in teaching and assessing grammar and in training language teachers in grammar and assessment, he was able to present “a new theoretical approach to defining grammatical ability that provides a basis for designing, developing and using assessments of grammar for a wide range of uses.” (p.ix-x)

The first chapter of the book discusses approaches and notions about grammar and its implications on assessment: 1Syntactocentric theories of language that provides educators with a wealth of information about grammatical forms and the rules that govern them that most classroom language teachers use as basis for syllabus design, materials preparation, instruction and classroom assessment. These theories have also informed L2 teachers and testers in their efforts to identify linguistic content for tests so that more general inferences about language ability can be made (p.6); 2The second general approach describes language through an analysis of communication.

“In this perspective, the structural description of the language is not the primary object of concern; rather, language is viewed as a system of communication, where a speaker or writer uses grammar is treated as one of many resources for accomplishing something with language, and grammarians describe both what the linguistic forms are for and how they are used to create meaning within and beyond the sentence. In other words, while the choice of the right grammatical form and the most appropriate lexical item is important, this perspective focuses more on the overall message being communicated and the interpretations that this message might invoke.” (p.7)

Chapter two of the book discusses L2 grammar, teaching and assessment backed up by various researches, and teaching experience and practices of language teachers that maximizes learning and acquisition. It also extensively explains how implicit and explicit instruction affect grammatical performance and how these present challenges for assessment: “The notion that grammatical knowledge structures can be differentiated according to whether they are fully automatized (i.e., implicit) or not (i.e., explicit) raises important questions for the testing of grammatical ability (Ellis in Purpura, 2004). Given the many purposes of assessment, we might wish to test explicit knowledge of grammar, implicit knowledge of grammar or both. For example, in certain classroom contexts, we might want to assess the learners’ explicit knowledge of one or more grammatical forms, and could, therefore, ask learners to answer multiple-choice or short-answer questions related to these forms.” (p.45)

In Chapter 3, arguments about grammar definitions are presented. A part of the chapter even expounds on the fact that there is no ‘right’ way to define grammar. “It is important to know what we mean by ‘grammar’ when attempting to specify components of grammatical knowledge for measurement purposes and will argue for a coherent model of grammatical ability – one that could be used for test development and test validation purposes.” (p.48) With grammar conceptualized in models of language ability, assessment may be based on testing situations and language function– to test grammatical form and meaning (literal and intended) and distinguish between the two so that “assessments can be used to provide more precise information to users of test results.” (p.82)

As the previous chapter discusses the role of grammar in models of communicative competence and how learners use grammatical forms as a resource for conveying a variety of meanings, the next chapter discusses how the proposed model of grammar can be used to define what it means to have second language grammatical ability that can serve as a basis for grammar test construction and validation. (p. 83) James Purpura was able to define a lot of key terms that enabled him to identify “grammar ability” and describe grammatical knowledge and suggest how they may be assessed. (p. 90)

Chapter five teaches the educator to design objective or subjective test tasks for grammar ability by identifying and considering target language use (TLU), TLU tasks, TLU situations and TLU domains. Operationalizing test tasks enable the assessor to provide a means of controlling what is being measured, what evidence needs to be observed to support the measurement claims, what specific features can be manipulated to elicit the evidence of performance, and finally how the performance should be scored.

Bachman and Palmer’s framework was used to discuss the qualities of grammar tests that make them ‘useful’. Chapter six discusses how “qualities of reliability, construct validity, authenticity, interactiveness, impact, and practicality work in a complementary fashion, and how the decision to emphasize one characteristic over another depends on the test mandate and the usefulness qualities that are most relevant for the particular situation.” (p. 180) Purpura provided a guide in writing grammar tests.

The design stage (Stage 1) describes the purposes and intended uses of the test, and provides a detailed plan for creating test tasks that aim to elicit instances of language use that correspond to those observed in the target language use domain. The operationalization phase (Stage 2) provides a blueprint for test writing which outlines the test structure and provides a set of specifications for each test task. The last stage of grammar-test development (Stage 3) involves the administration and the analysis of the exam results. This stage specifies procedures for administering the exam and collecting data intended to improve the test or support the qualities of test usefulness.

Chapter 7 provides a variety of professionally designed language tests that measure grammatical ability. This part of the book gives the designer an idea of how task are matched with purpose, usefulness and learner’s ability.

Chapter 8 focus on the issues related to the assessment of grammatical ability in language classroom contexts. It provides ways on how authentic assessment, alternative assessment and/or performance assessment may be used to test grammar ability as opposed to discrete point tests.

The last chapter identifies challenges and new directions in assessing grammar ability. the challenge for language testers is to design, score and interpret grammar assessments with a consideration for developmental proficiency. Purpura suggests continued research/ study on authentic and more effective ways to assess grammar. The book provides L2 grammar assessment in the light of relevant theories, approaches and research. The author ‘teaches’ the language tester and the classroom teacher to use three stages of designing tests to measure grammar ability using different types of assessment and language tasks. Purpura also pointed out that reliability, construct validity, authenticity, interactiveness, impact, and practicality play a role in test design and construction.

The book has quite a very ‘technical’ aspect to it. Each chapter is bombarded with terminologies that prove to be necessary to the discussion of salient points found in the book. These terms may appear to be intimidating and complex especially to a student, but Pupura’s use of the first person to communicate to his reader allows a friendly appeal and it gives the reader a glimpse of how he learned all this—like a personal experience, which is how learning would come to the reader.

Illustrative samples and their thorough analysis are helpful to the test designer. Testers will appreciate how theories, research, models, test tasks, and grammar ability are ‘aligned’ and how they interact in test development and design. Finally, this book, “Assessing Grammar” provides ways of assessment for both traditional and contemporary trends. But despite this somehow blurred boundaries between traditional and modern, authentic and alternative, grammar knowledge and ability– the point is to assess grammar according to use and purpose; form and meaning, implicitly or explicitly in the aspect of communication.

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