Success in Language Learning: What Role Can Language Assessment Play?

Neus Figueras


The main purpose of this chapter is to provide some context to the learning-oriented assessment movement, which has become prominent in the last ten years. One of the reasons for this trend is that international testing organizations have shown increasing interest in how their standardized tests, albeit externally produced, may influence learning. Different entities have joined in the efforts to categorize and operationalize how assessment can contribute to success in language learning. The chapter describes the work which has aimed at contributing to the improvement of educational assessment in different contexts, with a special emphasis on the work done by the Council of Europe. Finally, it reflects on how, despite the many efforts, there is still a need for further work.

Language learning, teaching, and assessment have often been addressed separately, as isolated elements rather than as an integrated and interrelated whole. Although the need for such a holistic approach to language education has been present in the literature for decades, it remains an unsolved challenge (Little & Erickson, 2015). The reasons for this continuing challenge are varied. On the one hand, the profusion of new approaches to classroom assessment(s), often disregarding past work, whilst not yet coming to an agreed definition of what classroom assessment is or means and how it relates to learning (Turner, 2012), does not help teachers’ engagement. On the other, it has to do with the way both initial and in-service teacher training programs are planned and delivered in many countries, with short or non-existent modules on assessment and atomized content(s) (Vogt & Tsagari, 2014). This context makes it difficult for change to take place, as change in pedagogies and classroom practices takes time and resources, which stakeholders (normally teachers, but also other users - learners, parents, society at large) are not always given. This situation results in the term assessment still being identified with exams and a lack of communication and meaningful interaction between standardized tests and what goes on in classrooms.

The chapter starts by focusing on the instructional efforts in Europe in the past 50 years, and on the work and projects of the Council of Europe, an international organization whose stated aim is to uphold human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in Europe. The publication in 2001 of the Common European Framework for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment (CEFR) mirrors in many respects the work done in other parts of the world, such as in Canada with the Canadian Benchmarks Project or in the USA with the ACTFL’s Proficiency Guidelines. The CEFR has had considerable international impact, and there is widespread knowledge of its six level labels (Al, A2, Bl, B2, Cl, C2). Its impact, however, has mostly been in the field of standardized tests, but it has also contributed - as have the Canadian Benchmarks and the ACTFL Guidelines - to a better understanding of how important common standards and benchmarks are, not only in assessment but also for teaching and learning.

The following section brings out some of the approaches devised to put into practice a holistic approach to education, featuring assessment centered on the learner to improve learning (Van Lier, 1996; Assessment Reform Group, 2002; or Pellegrino et al., 2016 amongst others). The third section identifies three main issues to address if change is to take place: conceptual, methodological, and practical. The chapter concludes by encouraging the dialogue between current and past research and approaches in order to fulfil what has been a long-awaited aim in language education.

The Story so Far in Europe: The CEFR and the Work of the Council of Europe

The many changes which the world has witnessed since the second half of the 20th century but, most importantly, international migration flows in the first twenty years of the 21st century have contributed to the increasing importance of language education today. Language is considered key as an instrument of human communication but also as a crucial tool for social inclusion and learning (Cummins, 2000; Shleppegrell, 2004). This evolution makes it necessary to have language education policies that cater to successful language learning at school, where the LI of many of the learners is not the language of schooling, and to policies which set the basis for language learning on a lifelong basis.

In response to the above trend, the Council of Europe (CoE) has broadened its activities since the first projects undertaken in the 1950s. CoE activities have evolved from targeting an action-oriented approach, primarily in foreign and second language learning, to a stronger focus on the language(s) of schooling and on the development of curricula to promote plurilingual and intercultural education. This is made explicit when one compares the contents in Chapter 1 in the CEFR, published in 2001, with the Introduction to the Common European Framework of

Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment. Companion Volume with New Descriptors (CV), published in 2018, with a final version in 2020.

The introduction to the CV, signed by the Head of the Education Department and the Head of the Education Policy Division, signals how the engagement of the Council’s Language Policy Programme “has broadened” to “further develop the underlying educational principles and objectives of the CEFR ... not only for foreign/second languages but also for the languages of schooling, and the development of curricula to promote plurilingual and intercultural education” (Council of Europe, 2020, p. 12). For those not familiar with the CEFR or the work of the CoE, the CV outlines in a very useful initial chapter the key aspects of the CEFR for teaching and learning, which is in fact a good point of entry to the publications of the CoE and to the ethos of the institution. The CV revisits and expands the contents of the CEFR on the basis of new developments in the field, and completes the CEFR’s descriptive scheme. New descriptors and new scales have been added to reinforce the attempt of the CoE to influence what goes on in classrooms with a “tool to facilitate educational reform projects, not a standardization tool” (Council of Europe, 2020, p. 26).

The comprehensive set of resources developed since the publication of the CEFR is freely available on the CoE’s website (, and also through the European Centre for Modern Languages (ECML; www.ecml. at), a CoE institution based in Graz (Austria). A diagram illustrating the Platform of Resources and References for Plurilingual and Intercultural Education on the CoE’s website captures the evolution referred to in the preceding paragraphs. The learner and the languages present in school is placed at the top, and the language(s) of schooling have a central role, branching out into and relating with foreign languages, modern and classical, regional, minority, and migration languages, language as a subject, and language(s) in other subjects.

The real impact of the CEFR, however, although much stronger than expected, has not really reached schools. Adoption has not been even in the planning of language learning, in the planning of language certification, or in fostering learners’ self-instruction. The CEFR vertical dimension - the level labels and the descriptors describing performances at different levels (Al, A2, Bl, B2, Cl, C2) - is at present much better known and more used than its horizontal dimension, with its thorough description of language domains, language activities, and language strategies (Martvniuk & Noijons 2007; Byram & Parmenter 2012). Initiatives like the European Language Portfolio (ELP), a project meant to mediate the contents of the CEFR into classrooms and to help illustrate the role that the CEFR could play in the development of self-directed language learning and learner autonomy, a crucial element in successful language learning, has been used in a rather limited way.

Parallel ro whar has been going on in Europe in order to foster an integrated view of learning, teaching, and assessment, a lot has been going on in different parts of the world, also prompted by institutional or governmental developments such as the Canadian Benchmarks and ACTFL Guidelines. It seems that learning, teaching, and assessment are still often treated separately (Little & Erickson, 2015, p. 125), and that the key to solving the situation is yet to be found. The following section presents some of the individual voices which have been arguing for a much- needed link between assessment(s) and teaching and learning.

Pedagogically coherent assessment needs to bridge mainly two challenges: one is theoretical and the other is contextual or practical. Mislevy (2018) outlines the first, “the growing gap between the understanding of learning and the practices of assessment” (p. 1). Takala et al. (2016) outline the second, more practical, challenge, which arises from the different contexts where different purposes or functions of assessment need to operate and their often conflicting relationships. The authors conceptualize the relationship between purpose(s) of assessment and context(s) in a diagram with four concentric circles representing exam contexts (international, national, regional, classroom) and their common assessment practices. In Takala et al.’s diagram, standardized exams are normally the option chosen in the international, national, and regional contexts, whereas the classroom context features a variety of assessment types and functions (formative, diagnostic), and the core circle is occupied by the learners and their individual, self-operated assessment activities. The tension between the needs of the external circle(s) and both the most inner circle and the core, the summative-external and the formative-classroom based, is obvious and not solved (Harlen, 2006, p. 113). In many cases, classroom practitioners, whose main job is to teach, to assess, to provide feedback to their students, and to make decisions about them, are often asked to deliver external, standardized tests prepared and rated externally. Learners have endured different assessment events taking place in the classroom, which may have the same purpose (to ascertain what they know), albeit by means of different approaches or types of tasks. Results may or may not be similar, but are seldom studied. The need to find clear and valid relationships between formative and summative purposes, classroom assessment and external assessment, large scale/standardized assessment and individually oriented assessment is obvious if varied, student-centered assessment activities are to be maintained and fostered.

Recent approaches to address the two challenges described above have used the umbrella term learning-oriented assessment (LOA), a term that has been gaining currency over the last ten years and which seems to be accepted today not only at academic and institutional levels but also by international examination boards. It is stimulating to see that some research into LOA aims precisely at easing the tension between the summative-external and the formative-classroom-based (Saville & Jones 2016).

However, ir is also of some concern that only a few explicit links to work on learning-related assessment under a different name(s) can be found in LOA literature. It is important to be able to refer back in order to go forward and stake out the territory clearly and meaningfully for stakeholders.

The aim in the following sections is precisely to outline work which has tried to relate learning and assessment and to make sense of the tension(s) between different assessment contexts and purposes, assessment types and uses and learning, and when and how they may be conducive to success in (language) learning. The authors featured have been selected to illustrate work done leading up to the present and in different geographical areas. However, the proposals and recommendations they describe can also be traced in the work of researchers like Oscarson (1978), Gipps (1994), Poehner (2014), Turner, and Purpura (2016), or Jones and Saville (2016), amongst many others.

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