Punishing with grades – are you ready to rethink your grading system?

16 04 2016


I have recently read two posts about grading that touch upon a topic that has long been boggling my mind – the use of grades as punishment and the overall fairness of grading systems. I would like to invite you to check out Monte Syrie’s explanation of why he doesn’t give zeros anymore, or grades below 50% for that matter, and why. Likewise, Andrew Miller explains how grades can harm student learning and how he has refrained from giving zeroes, taking points off for late work, grading practice exercises or homework, and allowing grading to become more important than teaching. Both authors contend that when we give students a zero or take points off for late work, their grade ends up not reflecting how much they have truly learned. An outsider who looks at a student’s grade might be misled into thinking that the student hasn’t mastered the content, when in fact what might have happened is simply that the student got a zero that was averaged out with the other grades, resulting in an unrealistically low average.

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Some thoughts on the English Proficiency Index

6 12 2015

Last month, Education First released its English Proficiency Index for the year of 2015. This index was launched in 2011 and since then, it has released reports about the English proficiency of different countries around the world.  The 2015 report is based on tests taken by around 910 thousand adults from 70 countries in 2014 (Education First, 2015). Besides ranking the countries around the world, the report also ranks the different states in Brazil.

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The Power of Portfolio Assessment

27 09 2015

Despite my 15 years of experience with portfolio assessment, its power never ceases to amaze me. I’ve recently conducted a course for public school English teachers in the Federal District and, once again, used portfolio assessment.

I have a feeling that some educators might not adopt portfolio assessment because they think it is too complicated; others might think it is not “serious” or “valid” and “reliable” enough, and that anything goes.

I’m going to demonstrate how portfolio assessment is simple, valid, and reliable as a classroom assessment tool. More importantly, I am going to address its greatest strengths as an authentic assessment tool: authenticity and usefulness.

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Assessment Conundrums

28 06 2015

I am teaching a course for public school English teachers in Brasilia and one of the topics addressed is assessment. The aim of this part of the course is to improve teachers’ assessment literacy, allowing them to provide informed feedback on the assessment system used in their institution and develop assessment systems and tools that are in keeping with the most current assessment practices.

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Five myths about formative assessment

16 03 2014


As I am involved in the planning and execution of a formative assessment system for my institution’s adult course, this is a topic that has been on my radar lately. In fact, my previous post was exactly about a formative oral assessment activity. I was also recently invited to conduct a discussion with a group of Language Arts high school teachers implementing an innovative portfolio system for the assessment of their students’ writing.

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When learning outcomes, instructional strategies, formative assessment, and technology meet

26 01 2014


The traditional way of assessing students’ oral performance is by way of formal oral tests, administered at the end of a teaching period. Typically, students sit in pairs in front of the examiner, many times their own teacher, other times another teacher for an “unbiased judgment”,  and perform a task based on a given situation. For test security, reliability and, arguably, validity purposes, the students cannot know in advance the task they are going to be asked to perform. The teacher listens, takes notes, and gives a grade based on a set of scoring rubrics, and students have only one shot at the task. This is the model used in high stakes proficiency tests and replicated in EFL/ESL classes due to the belief that our role is to prepare students for standardized proficiency tests. Or is it?

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Aligning learning outcomes, instructional strategies and assessment – an example using mLearning and Digital Images by my colleague Vinícius Lemos

5 11 2012

Today’s post is cross-posted from the CTJ Connected Blog. I encourage my readers to explore the other wonderful posts my colleagues at Casa Thomas Jefferson have produced for our school’s teachers’ blog.

In the October 2012 special issue of the ELT Journal – The Janus Papers – Stephen Stoynoff looks back at the changes in language assessment and analyzes the transitions under way. With the emerging dominance of a sociocultural paradigm in which learning is seen as a developmental, socially-constructed, interactive, and reflective process, classroom-based assessment will (pp. 527-528):

– integrate the teacher fully into the assessment process including planning assessment, evaluating performance, and making decisions based on the results of assessment;

– be conducted by and under the direction of the learners’ teacher (as opposed to an external assessor);

– yield multiple samples of learner performance that are collected over time and by means of multiple assessment procedures and activities;

– be applied and adapted to meet the teaching and learning objectives of different classes and students;

– integrate learners into the assessment process and utilize self- and peer-assessment in addition to teacher-assessment of learning;

– foster opportunities for learners to engage in self-initiated enquiry;

– offer learners immediate and constructive feedback;

– monitor, evaluate, and modify procedures to optimize teaching and learning.

Likewise, the National Capital Learning Resource Center (2004) enumerates the following distinguishing features of alternative assessment:

1) Are built around topics or issues of interest to the students;

2) replicate real-world communication contexts and situations;

3) involve multi-stage tasks and real problems that require creative use of language rather than simple repetition;

4) require learners to produce a quality product or performance;

5) include evaluation criteria and standards which are known to the student;

6) involve interaction between assessor (instructor, peers, self) and person assessed;

7) allow for self-evaluation and self-correction as they proceed.

Hence, there’s been a growing interest in integrating classroom teaching, learning, and assessment. According to the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence, Carnegie Mellon University, assessments, learning objectives, and instructional strategies need to be aligned so that they reinforce one another, as the image below shows.


Jon Mueller has a frequently updated webiste entitled Authentic Assessment Toolbox that not only provides solid theoretical background on authentic assessment, but also offers a variety of tools in which the assessments are perfectly aligned with the learning objectives and the instructional activities. Cecília Lemos has also written inspiring posts on alternative asssessment in her popular blogBox of Chocolates.

Burger (2008) proposes the use of Outcomes-Based Education (OBE), in which the first step in planning teaching is identifying the learning outcomes; these outcomes then determine the teaching and assessment that follow so that the learning can be easily assessed via performance. Aligning learning objectives and instructional activities is not hard at all. The difficult part of the triangle is the assessment part, especially when it comes to oral performance.

How can the teacher possibly assess every student’s performance on an oral task designed to assess the attainment of a learning outcome that was developed by way of perfectly aligned instructional activities?

How can learners be integrated into the assessment process?

I’m going to propose an example based on an earlier post on this blog by my colleague Vinicius Lemos – mLearning and Digital images – on the CTJ Connected Blog. What he describes in his post is an instructional strategy resulting from previous strategies in which students were taught the clothing vocabulary and the present continuous to talk about what one is wearing. I will attempt here to close the triangle above by spelling out the learning objectives that are implicit in the task and suggest a way of assessing students’ resulting performance.

Learning outcome 1: Given a specific event, students will select and photograph the appropriate pieces of clothing to wear and describe their picture to their classmates using the present continuous and the correct indefinite article before each piece of clothing.

Learning outcome 2: Given a picture with pieces of clothing that suggest a specific event, students will be able to ask questions using “Are you going to…” and vocabulary to talk about specific events.

I suggest having students work in pairs rather than in groups to perform the activity, according to the outcomes above: Student A shows and describes his picture using the required language; student B asks questions to guess the event. Then they switch roles.

Students can practice this exchange with two or three different pairs, as the teacher walks around and monitors their performance. The third or fourth time around, they are asked to record their exchanges, using their smartphones or, if available, the computer lab or a set of iPads. After they finish, they listen to their performance and engage in self-assessment of their part of the recording, according to a can-do checklist that can contain items such as:

I can name all the pieces of clothing.

– I can use the correct article for pieces of clothing in the singular starting with a vowel or consonant sound and no article for plural.

– I can describe what I’m wearing using the present continuous.

– I can name events such as school, work, picnic, wedding, etc.

– I can ask questions about where a person is going based on their outfit.

– I can produce the language described above in a natural way, without too much hesitation or many long pauses to think.

They judge their performance and if they think it needs improvement, they can record the conversation again, making the necessary adjustments. Then they send the recording to the teacher, who will use rubrics to assess students’ attainment of the two outcomes above. The teacher’s rubrics need to be similar to the students’, but should contain at least three levels of performance with appropriate descriptions.

Suppose each unit in the language program’s assessment cycle consists of five learning outcomes. Then each outcome can be worth 20 points. If the teacher conducts these types of assessments right after the instructional strategy, in such a way that the strategy is the assessment and vice-versa, at the end the student will have a grade on a 0-100 scale for oral performance.

Who needs a midterm or end-of-term oral test after that?

The proposed assessment system here is in keeping with Stoyoff’s (2012) list of characteristics of contemporary classroom-based assessment: it integrates the teacher fully into the process; it is conducted by the teacher; it can be one of a variety of samples of learnt performance collected over time, using multiple procedures; it meets the learning objectives, it integrates learners into the assessment process; it offers immediate and constructive feedback; and it allows the teacher to monitor, evaluate, and modify procedures to optimize teaching and learning.


Burger, M. (2008). The alignment of teaching, learning and assessment in English home language grade 10 in District 9, Johannesburg(Dissertation). University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa.

National Capital Language Resource Center (NCLRC). (2004) Assessing learning: Alternative assessment. In The essentials of language teaching. Retrieved from http://www.nclrc.org/essentials/assessing/alternative.htm

Stoynoff, S. (2012). Looking backward and forward at classroom-based language assessment. In ELT Journal, V. 66/4 – Special Issue: The Janurs Papers, pp. 523-532.

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