Vol. 5. No. 1 R-12 April 2001
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Learner-Directed Assessment in ESL

Glayol Ekbatani and Herbert Pierson (Eds.) (2000)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. xiv + 171
ISBN 0-8058-3068-5 (paper)
US $18.95 (also available in cloth, $39.95)

Learner-Directed Assessment in ESL is a collection of articles that examine the relationship between the language learner and language assessment processes. The intent of this volume is to promote approaches to assessment that actively involve the learner in the testing process.

According to Lyle Bachman, who authors a very interesting foreword for the volume, the concept of learner-directed assessment comes from recent movements in the field. The most important is that of learner-centered teaching. He notes that for the past decade or so, educators have readily accepted that learners can and should be involved in their own learning. While learner-centered teaching has received a lot of attention in the literature, the importance of involving learners in the assessment process has received scant empirical attention. Hence, the importance of this volume lies in the fact that it provides some useful insights into the issue of expanding the role of the learner in the assessment process. The chapters in this volume suggest a number of approaches for greater involvement of learners in their own assessment.

The eight chapters in this book are grounded in current pedagogical applications of authentic assessment techniques and are targeted at busy classroom teachers and program directors who are seeking ways to include their students in the evaluation process. Additionally, this volume contributes to the second-language assessment knowledge base in that it gives attention to the issues of reliability and validity in learner-directed assessment. According to the volume editors, Glayol Ekbatani and Herbert Pierson, teachers readily acknowledge the importance of learner-directed assessment. However, incorporating these techniques into the classroom environment often brings about issues in test validity and reliability. This volume is intended to be a "meeting place" where teachers and testers can consider these issues at a deeper level.

Ekbatani's introductory chapter provides an informative review of the current status of learner involvement in assessment. The neglect of such assessment measures provides the major thrust of this volume. She very importantly points out that "the active inclusion of the language learner in the testing process is a necessary step in moving toward autonomy in language acquisition" (p. 2). The remaining chapters of the volume are broken down into the four major areas of learner-directed assessment: self-assessment, self-repair, portfolio assessment, and verbal reports.

Brian North (chapter 2) and Diane Strong-Krause (chapter 3) focus on two different aspects of self-assessment and the inherent validity/reliability issues that evolve from the use of this technique in language assessment. For example, concerns have been raised about learners' objectivity and capacity to assess their own language abilities. [-1-]

In his chapter, North describes the research he conducted in Switzerland with the European framework to develop empirically-sound and verifiable proficiency scales that define different aspects of language use at different levels. He also provides recommendations about how these scales and descriptors can serve as valuable tools for ESL professionals. A third objective of his research was to develop prototype self- and teacher-assessment instruments to launch studies in Switzerland with the language portfolio as a means of recording achievement in relation to the common European scale. North's article makes an important contribution to the field of self-assessment. His data analysis has produced a defined 10-band scale of language proficiency, regrouped into six levels to fit into the Council of Europe framework. He also provides a bank of classified, calibrated descriptors covering a relatively large number of categories related to the Council of Europe framework as well as an impression of what factors make descriptors work. Equally valuable are the teacher and student self-assessment checklists. As Ekbatani quite rightly points out, the development of these concrete task-based descriptors constitutes a major breakthrough in the current study of self-assessment.

Strong-Krause studies the use of self-assessment as part of the placement procedure. More specifically, she examines the degree of task specificity that is needed to obtain accurate results. She presents us with three categories of self-assessment: global, specific context, and actual. Her study attempts to ascertain the types of tasks that best predict placement in ESL programs. Her guidelines for the development of self-assessment instruments are a particularly valuable part of her article. Additionally, the English Ability Questionnaire that she developed can be easily adaptable to a variety of different instructional contexts.

In chapter 4, Erna Van Hest presents self-repair as an alternative to language assessment. The author defines the concept of self-repair as the corrections that learners make on their own initiative. She reports on the results of a 4-year study investigating the L1 and L2 self-repair strategies of Dutch learners of English. She presents a very valid case that self-repair data may be of consequence to assessment specialists insofar as they provide a linguistic basis for proficiency tests to be geared to the learner's present level of language development.

Chapters 5 and 6 by Gottlieb and Hirvela & Pierson respectively focus on the third major area of learner-directed assessment, portfolio assessment. The aim of both chapters is to address the necessary prerequisites leading to the development of reliable portfolio assessment. These prerequisites include selecting the dimensions of a portfolio, defining its purpose, and establishing the criteria for judging its content. In her chapter on portfolio use in elementary and secondary schools, Gottlieb examines the theoretical background and practical applications of portfolios. Hirvela and Pierson look at portfolio assessment from the perspective of ESL writing instruction. They also examine the contributions of portfolios in authentic language assessment.

In the final area of learner-directed assessment, Cohen provides a comprehensive review of the literature on the use of verbal reports to investigate the test-taking strategies employed by students in a variety of authentic assessment tasks. [-2-]

In the epilogue, Ekbatani and Pierson sum up the goals of their volume. They are: 1) to promote the pedagogical value of learner-directed assessment; 2) to share concerns as to the validity and reliability issues present in this type of assessment; 3) to encourage a departure from traditional testing formats towards more alternative forms of assessment; and 4) to provide teachers with the means to go about using learner-directed assessment in their own classrooms.

After reading Learner-Directed Assessment in ESL I can safely say that the authors have achieved these goals and many more. Ekbatani and Pierson have put together a volume that is a must in any teacher's professional library on language assessment.

Christine Coombe
Higher Colleges of Technology

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