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Profiling ESL children: How teachers interpret and use national and state assessment frameworks

Mary Rohl
Faculty of Education
Edith Cowan University


The Profiling ESL Children project[1] directly informs the National Literacy Goals in that it addresses literacy assessment in the first four years of school within different states and systems of Australia. Specifically, the project examined the pedagogical implications of the assessment of young ESL (English as a Second Language) children by their teachers in terms of the various assessment frameworks available in their states and systems. Thus, it took account of the differences in the student populations across States and systems, the diverse nature of schools and their communities, the differing needs of individual students, and the range of teaching and learning styles within the heterogeneous community of Australia.

As was shown in the National School English Literacy Survey (ACER, 1997) students from language backgrounds other than English demonstrated, on average, lower English literacy levels than children from English-speaking backgrounds. Thus, the National Plan, in its goal to help raise literacy outcomes for all children requires consideration of the needs of non-English speaking background students. In our project the specific language needs of ESL children were addressed by examining the ways in which their teachers used assessment frameworks to report on and plan for the children's language and literacy learning.

Our major purpose in the study was to focus on how teachers made judgements about their ESL students' progress and achievements in learning English. The specific objectives are summarised as follows:

The study took the form of case studies of teachers in 23 classrooms (Years K-3). The research sites were in four States and were chosen from State and Catholic systems, high and lower socioeconomic areas, and urban and rural locations. Most teachers were working in mainstream schools, a few were in Language Centres and one was from a special education facility. The children in their classrooms were from a range of language backgrounds, some were recently arrived in Australia, some were born in Australia, some spoke English as a second language or dialect and some spoke it as a foreign language or dialect.

The teachers used a variety of assessment frameworks. Some were mainstream documents, for example, First Steps Developmental Continua (EDWA, 1994) and versions of the National English Profile, such as the English Student Outcome Statements (EDWA, 1997). Other documents were designed specifically for ESL learners, such as the NLLIA ESL Bandscales (McKay, 1992); the ESL Scales (AEC, 1994) and the Victorian ESL Companion to the Curriculum Standards and Framework (Board of Studies, 1996). An overview of the many assessment frameworks in use in schools throughout Australia at the time of our study (1996/97) is shown in table 1.

Table 1: Overview of English and ESL Assessment Frameworks
used in each State (1996-1997)

StateGovernment SchoolsCatholic Schools
Australian
Capital
Territory
ACT English Curriculum Framework
First Steps
ESL Scales
NLLIA Bandscales
First Steps
New South
Wales
English K-6 Syllabus
Early Learning Profiles
ESL Scales
First Steps
ESL Curriculum Standards Framework (Being developed)
English K-6 Syllabus
Early Learning Profiles
ESL Scales
Northern
Territory
NT Outcomes Profile for ESL
ESL Scales
First Steps
NT Outcomes Profile for ESL
ESL Scales
NLLIA Bandscales
First Steps
QueenslandQueensland English Syllabus Years 1-10
Queensland version of First Steps
NLLIA Bandscales
Qld Draft ESL Proficiency Scales (1996)
NLLIA ESL Bandscales
First Steps
Queensland Student Performance Standards for English
Proposed ESL Scales of Need (Draft 3)
South
Australia
ESL Scales
ESL Curriculum Statement for SA Schools
ESL Scales
Language Australia Bandscales
First Steps
TasmaniaESL Scales
Key Intended Literacy Outcomes (KILOS)
ESL Scales
First Steps
Diagnostic English Language Tests (ACER)
VictoriaCurriculum Standards & Framework (CSF)
ESL Companion to English CSF
Keys to Life Early Literacy Program
Assessment & Reporting Support Materials in English and ESL
KIDMAP
NLLIA Bandscales
ESL Companion to English CSF
First Steps
ESL Scales
Monitoring & Assessing Language Development
New Arrivals Record
Reading Recovery
Keys to Life Early Literacy Program
Western
Australia
Student Outcome Statements
First Steps
Framework of Stages (ALL)
NLLIA Bandscales
ESL Scales
First Steps
Student Outcome Statements
ESL Bandscales

IMPLICATIONS FOR PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT

The findings of the study have far-reaching implications for pre-service and in-service teacher education. The key implications are outlined below.

It is most important that systems provide pre-service and in-service training for all teachers in the assessment and teaching of ESL children. There were some mainstream teachers in our study who were very experienced in ESL teaching, but had little or no knowledge of ESL-specific frameworks. Whilst our case study teachers in Language Centres had undertaken specialist training for teaching ESL children and were familiar with ESL-specific frameworks, many mainstream teachers who had large numbers of ESL chi ldren in their classes had experienced little or no training in teaching or assessing these children. As a result, in some cases, ESL children became 'lost' in the class and opportunities for addressing these children's individual needs were not seized.

If teachers are to make use of ESL-specific frameworks for assessment and reporting then it is essential that they receive training in their use. For the most part these frameworks were used only by specialist ESL teachers, with teachers in Language Centres being particularly enthusiastic about the need for ESL-specific frameworks. They felt that the use of these frameworks allowed for the fine-grained analysis of ESL children's language necessary to demonstrate progress over relatively short periods of time and were most important for accountability purposes.

Some teachers who had not been exposed to ESL-specific frameworks were developing informal frameworks for assessing their ESL students and were taking into account their language backgrounds. Nevertheless, these teachers would have saved a great deal of time had they been introduced to the specialist frameworks through professional development.

Some mainstream class teachers rejected ESL-specific frameworks as they perceived children's first language as simply one of many factors influencing children's progress at school and did not wish to single out ESL students on this basis. Additional objections raised by teachers included the amount of additional work required, both in coming to terms with understanding them and in implementing them in their daily practice. They already felt overworked and did not wish to add to their burden more than was absolutely necessary. Thus, professional development needs to address these issues and to be combined with some time-release from teaching duties.

Professional development was perceived as being particularly effective at the school or district level, particularly where the trainers had classroom experience in using or developing the framework. Many teachers relied on advisers and colleagues to provide concepts and links which helped them interpret a framework and their confusions were often resolved through discussion with other teachers within and, especially, between schools. Moreover, professional development was seen as particularly important to teachers whose school contexts were distant from state and regional centres.

Innovations in education need to be introduced gradually to teachers, with support from personnel who are respected. The process of becoming familiar with any framework requires much time and effort on the part of teachers, in addition to any professional development that is provided. There was some feeling that in order to be most effective, professional development should allow teachers time to accommodate new information to their existing knowledge and practices. Where frameworks complemented or extended teachers' existing philosophies and practices, they were enthusiastically taken up; where they were not seen as appropriate by teachers they were either not used, or used only to fulfil specific, imposed requirements. In the latter case, teachers voiced their concerns about the unsuitability of the frameworks for their ESL children.

Many of the teachers had assistants, some of whom were multilingual, working alongside them in their classrooms who helped the teachers in observing children for assessment purposes. It is important that these teaching assistants are also provided with access to professional development.

We found that, through their assessment practices, teachers constructed their young ESL learners in various ways, some of which demeaned and undermined their emergent bilingualism. Thus, professional development needs to be sensitive to this process of construction and to offer assessment strategies that encourage teachers to view bilingualism as a positive attribute.

Assessment practices should include the languages children come to school with and are learning through, where possible by employing bilingual teachers or assistants and involving children, parents, extended family and community in the assessment process. Professional development is needed to raise awareness of the issues involved in such a re-conceptualisation of the nature and use of assessment and of the roles of those involved in it.

KEY RESEARCH PRIORITIES

There are several important research implications of this study. Firstly, research needs to be carried out to give an account of the heterogeneity of ESL children in Australian schools. Such an account would inform appropriate educational provision for those students with, for example, low or non-print literacy backgrounds, those with standard literacy backgrounds in their own language, or those with genuine learning difficulties. It would also identify the relative benefits of appropriate educational provision for students in, for example, immersion and bilingual contexts, in EFL contexts or in rural communities and for new arrivals in language centres.

Secondly, given that the study coincided with the relatively recent introduction of the frameworks, a longitudinal study of a representative group of teachers in all States and Territories who have fully integrated one or other framework within their pedagogy over a longer period of time would provide evidence of the deeper and lasting impact of the current drive for innovation in assessment upon classroom pedagogy. This innovation is a costly and highly significant nationwide experiment. The present study has focused upon the actual commencement of the experiment by teachers in classrooms. Such longitudinal research could properly evaluate the outcomes from the experiment in terms of shifts in broader pedagogy and, crucially, changes in the quality of learning among ESL students. It would consequently inform future directions in how we may best trace progress and appropriately support the learning of English, and all areas of the curriculum, by young ESL students in our schools.

Thirdly, it is important to examine the potential of pre-service and in-service training to effect changes in teacher attitudes to the assessment and learning of ESL children. Many of the mainstream teachers in our study had received little or no training in ESL methodology; indeed in a few cases teachers were not aware of which children in their classes came from a language background other than English.

Fourthly, this study was limited to teachers of children in Years K-3. More research is needed to determine how subject teachers of older children are using assessment frameworks to monitor and plan for the learning of ESL children.

Finally, all but two of the teachers in the study were teaching and assessing their young ESL learners in English only and the system demands on these two teachers required that language assessments were in English, even though the teachers voiced their opinion that assessment in the children's first language would have provided a more comprehensive picture of the children's linguistic competence. Given the research findings of Barratt-Pugh et al. (1996) and McKay et al. (1997), there is a need for more Australian research that examines the teaching and assessment of young children in two languages. As Snow et al. (1998) in their report for the US National Research Council concluded:

The accumulated wisdom of research in the field of bilingual education and literacy tends to converge on the conclusion that, while initial literacy instruction in a second language can be successful, it carries with it a higher risk of reading problems and of lower ultimate literacy attainment than literacy instruction in a first language. (p. 223)

CONCLUSION

Teachers asserted the positive contribution of a framework to the extent that it: The study indicates that it would be difficult to prove to any degree of certainty that one assessment framework serves its purpose 'better' than another. The inevitable diversity of interpretation, use and context which we discovered is likely to prohibit such certainty. Even in the longer term, it would be virtually impossible to isolate the influence of a teacher's assessment practices alone, in whatever form, upon students' learning outcomes. Virtually all the teachers in the study adapted whatever frameworks were at their disposal to suit their own teaching contexts. Each teacher thus represents in microcosm what has happened on a State and national level with the ESL-specific frameworks: no single document completely satisfies anyone, and they all require adaptation to the local context. Although all the fully-developed ESL-specific frameworks discussed in this study received favourable comment, there was a strong tendency for frameworks which emphasise process and which include suggestions for teaching or other curriculum support to be preferred. This general preference is further reflected in the favourable comments made about mainstream assessment frameworks which include such material. Brief summaries designed for ESL learners tended to be rejected.

As we found, there is a plethora of outcome frameworks in Australia at the present time, both mainstream and ESL-specific, all of which have taken considerable time and money to develop and implement. In WA alone, since the publication of our project report last year, other new published outcome documents include the Curriculum Frameworks, a revised version of Student Outcome Statements (based on the National Profiles and Statements) as well as a revised version of the national Benchmarks, all of which will impact on teachers' pedagogical and assessment practices. Surely the time has come for teachers to be allowed to consolidate their assessment practices, for longitudinal research to examine the effects of teachers' use of assessment frameworks, and for resources to be directed towards effective professional development and appropriate teaching and assessment practices for the young children who are an important part of the diverse Australian population.

REFERENCES

Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER). (1997). Mapping literacy achievement: Results of the 1996 National School English Literacy Survey. Camberwell, Victoria: Author.

Australian Education Council (AEC). (1994). The ESL Scales. Carlton, Victoria: Curriculum Corporation.

Barratt-Pugh, C., Breen, M., Kinder, J. & Rohl, M. (1996). Learning in two languages: Models of bilingual education. Perth: Language Australia.

Board of Studies, Victoria. (1996). The English Companion to the CSF. Carlton, Victoria: Author.

DEETYA. (1998). Literacy for all: The challenge for Australian schools: Commonwealth literacy policies for Australian schools. Canberra: Department of Employment, Education Training and Youth Affairs. http://www.dest.gov.au/archive/schools/literacy&numeracy/publications/lit4all.htm

Education Department of Western Australia (EDWA). (1994). First steps developmental continua: Reading, writing, spelling, oral language. Melbourne: Longman.

Education Department of Western Australia (EDWA). (1997). Student outcome statements: Draft version. Perth: Education Department of Western Australia.

McKay, P. (Ed.). (1992). The NLLIA Bandscales: Volume 1. ESL Development: Language and Literacy in Schools. Canberra: The National Languages and Literacy Institute of Australia.

McKay, P., Davies, A., Devlin, B., Clayton, J., Oliver, R. & Zammit, S. (1997). The Bilingual Interface Project. Canberra: DEETYA. http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/cls/clearinghouse/content_1997_bilingual.html

Snow, C., Burns, M.S. & Griffin, P. (Eds). (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Research Council.

ENDNOTE

  1. Breen, M. P., Barratt-Pugh, C., Derewianka, B., House, H., Hudson, C., Lumley, T. & Rohl, M. (1997). Profiling ESL children: How teachers interpret and use National and State assessment frameworks (Vols 1-3). Canberra: DEETYA. http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/cls/clearinghouse/content_1997_profiling.html

Contact Details:Dr Mary Rohl
School of Language Education
Edith Cowan University, WA 6018.
Phone: 08 9273 8366 Fax: 08 9273 8714
Email: m.rohl@cowan.edu.au

Please cite as: Rohl, M. (1999). Profiling ESL children: How teachers interpret and use national and state assessment frameworks. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 15(1), 113-122. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/rohl.html


[ Contents Vol 15, 1999 ] [ QJER Home ]
Created 6 Jan 2005. Last revision: 6 Jan 2005.
URL: http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/rohl.html