Educational Assessment (part III) – Released items and thinking outside the box

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In the last two posts, Icommented on Educational Assessment from two perspectives; first, analysing the types of tests we can find, and second, reflecting on how the information obtained through these tests is used in media. In this third post on educational assessment I’ll be dealing with the so-called ‘released items’, that is, activities and questions included in these official tests anybody can access and explore. To narrow down the analysis, I’ve chosen the European Survey of Language Competences (ESLC). As I said in a previous post, this test assesses students’ language competences in two foreign or additional languages. In Spain, English and French are tested having students finishing compulsory secondary education as participants. I’m wondering: What do these questions look like? What type of structure do they follow? What thinking skills are they promoting? Are they fostering creative thinking? 

Released Items
Released Items

To start with, I’ve accessed the document ‘released tasks’, available on the Spanish Ministry of Education website (you can access it here). This gave me the chance to have a gut reaction towards the structure and content of this test. It quickly reminded me of those old tests I had to take when I was studying English in the Language School. I was 10 years old, and I hated them :). Also, they have the same structure as other tests, such as the ones used in the Official School of Languages or in examination institutions, such as Cambridge or Trinity. In other words, the format is quite traditional. Regarding content, if you have a look at page 5 in the document, you’ll see that the topics covered are also quite common: family, hobbies, holidays, etc.

Most tasks are following a multiple-choice response format, and are asking the student to spot key information in written and oral tests. Let’s see an example which has intrigued me. It is on page 16. There you can read a short text on Leo, a cat which has been lost. The text is thought to be a notice written by his owner, but it doesn’t contain common features of this type of texts, namely, a photo of the lost animal, and short and descriptive sentences. The text is not natural at all, and it is really clear that some sentences have been added to have some more ‘stuff’ to ask about.

Trying to see the brigh side of things, knowing the structure of the activity may be of use if students are very scared thinking about the test. In this way, we can make them see that tasks are very similar to the ones most textbooks and official tests are using. Also, it is interesting for teachers to see how the activities are scaffolded differently according to students’ level (even if they are not the ideal model for scaffolding, it may serve teacher trainees to reflect on how these tasks could be improved to be used in class in a more significant way.

And here it goes my question, what’s the place of creativity in all of this? How are we measuring divergent thinking? How are we checking that students are using compensational strategies which will not answer the question as it is required for them to do but will make them successful at the end? Are tests directed to students which feel at ease with Multiple Intelligences other than Logical and Linguistic? Is this type of learner we are looking for? Are these tests reflecting a spoon-feeding methodology which was useful in the industrial revolution when everything was structured, organised and measured accordingly? Is there a chance to design tests which are reflecting students’ full learning potential instead of making them say/do/match/point to what it is considered ‘correct’? Discussion is open.

We should foster higher order thinking skills. Divergent thinking is a must
We should foster higher order thinking skills. Divergent thinking is a must

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One report, multiple perspectives. Educational assessment (Part 2)

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In this post I will deal with the PISA 2012 report as analysed by different media. It is my purpose to show how one single report can be interpreted from different perspectives depending on the source of information we are using. Let’s start!

PISA 2012 and the UK. I googled these words and came across a BBC article describing PISA results. The main worry here is that the UK is falling behind other countries and it is no longer a member of top lists. The Chinese educational system seems to produce more fruitful results and it is seen as a powerful rival. As the information is focused on top or bottom countries, Spain does not even appear…

What about top PISA country, Finland? Its interpretation of the test is very similar to the one carried out by the UK. They also consider their scores have declined dramatically and are concerned about the reasons why this has happened. In fact, the article I read mentions that it is important to get all the educational community involved in improving school quality, and highlight the importance of motivating students and making schools learning-friendly. No doubt their vision of education as something that goes beyond the classroom walls and their awareness of children’s needs and emotions make them be at the very top, no matter what PISA says this time.

And what about Spain? The digital edition of the newspaper ABC analysed the report emphasising that Spain is scoring below average in Maths, reading comprehension and Science. However, later in the article they mention that, in comparison with PISA 2003, students are scoring similarly in Maths and have improved in the other two areas.

In the same line, El Pais presents us with a ranking where Spain is in the bottom part of the list. Concerning the reasons why we are failing, and they state that improving is almost impossible, they report on opinions given by stakeholders who mention teachers and schools, although they do not indicate how to improve these scores.

Finally, the newspaper EL Mundo argues that Spain’s low scores can be explained because of the lack of investment in education. PISA results are considered a failure and a shame for Spain (literal words translated). They are also concerned about the educational level young people reach, as many of them only hold basic qualifications.

What’s my view after this analysis? Quality in education is a culture, and I consider that Spain has much work to do to make people aware of their part in this. It is not a question of blaming teachers or official budgets, it is everybody’s responsibility. We won’t change this in a day, but I bet that if we start the movement working hand by hand with educational centres, teachers and teacher education undergraduates, quality will be an everyday must-have.

What do you think about this? How is PISA viewed in your country? You can also follow this discussion here: @preguntasPISA


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Learning about international educational assessment

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Hi there!
Today I’ll be covering the topic of international educational assessment. The reason is that I’m completing a MOOC on this issue, and have considered this info can be of your interest, apart from being part of the assignment of the course :).
Let’s start!
PISA is probably the best known educational assessment study. Its name is not honouring the famous place in Italy, but it is an acronym standing for Programme for International Student Assessment. Spain participates every three years in this comparative study. It is focused on measuring 15-year-old students’ competences in relation to reading comprehension, mathematics and Science. Next study will be carried out in 2015.

TIMSs stands for Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. It measures learning progression in terms of Mathematics and Science. It is not only interested in learning outcomes, as it also gathers information about curriculum contents and implementations, methodologies used, resources and more.

PIRLS Progress in International Reading Literacy Study. It is intended to be used with children aged 9-years as this is a crucial stage in their reading development. Decoding is now fully automatised and students can enjoy reading. One interesting detail about the study is that it comprises both literary and informative tests.

From the myriad of tests left, I have chosen two I didn’t know which are focused on measuring students’ linguistic competence in a foreign language. The first one is the European Survey of Language Competences, which offers very useful information regarding the percentage of students reaching basic and independent user levels, according to the European Framework, in L2 and L3.

Finally, the ETLS is a computer-based survey on the teaching and learning of English as an additional language. It is not just focused on language competences but also in language use and attitudes, among other variables. It will be launched in 2017.

Once I’ve described the most relevant tests in my field, it is time to reflect on the use of these tools. Are they used for formative assessment? Do political stakeholders use correctly the information produced in the reports following these tests? Does the inclusion of these tests lead to a washback effect? If we are supporting a change in school practices, gearing towards more active and participative methodologies, shouldn’t we design assessment tools accordingly? Over to you…

My tweet for this module: Sabías que el estudio ESCL proporciona info sobre competencias en L2 y L3 en Europa? #preguntasPISA

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This is my map! Bilingual experience at the II Foro Nebrija (27th June 2012)

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CLIL teachers should find their ways (maps) into CLIL
CLIL teachers should find their ways (maps) into CLIL

It’s summer! This is a good time to have a rest, ‘reset the system’ and start thinking about what we would like to do in the new course. One of my summer resolutions is to devote more time to this blog, and to try to share resources, ideas and experiences I’ve used or had during the academic year which has just finished.

To start with, let me just make a quick comment one of the last Bilingual Events I have attended: the II Foro de Enseñanza Bilingüe at the Universidad Nebrija (Madrid). This is a yearly event which takes place during one day, and offers plenary sessions as well as parallel workshops for anyone interested in the field of Bilingual Education. This year I had the pleasure to contribute to this event on bilingual education as one of the plenary speakers. I would like to thank the Organisation Team (M. Teresa Martín, Marta Genís and their colleagues) for their kind invitation to contribute with my experience to this Foro.

My session focused was on the need to rethink Teacher Training University Degrees to fit the reality education is shaping right now, that is, we should work to train our students (future teachers) to be ready to meet the requirements of a highly-demanding professional profile. Obviously, I mentioned my experience as Coordinator of the Bilingual Project at the Escuela Universitaria Cardenal Cisneros, and the steps we have made in relation to three aspects: the training of University lecturers, Curriculum design and Research. I highlighted the importance of considering this situation both as a Challenge and as an Opportunity to improve the quality of education provided by Higher Education. You can find the powerpoint I used here.

From this II Foro I gathered that teachers are still trying to find out a magic recipe, some of them still demand for a single definition of CLIL that can fit any educational context. I’m afraid that this is not possible and, what is more, it can be dangerous. If CLIL is defined as an unique equation, we run the risk of discriminating those who try hard to innovate and be flexible with their students, provided they fulfill some basic quality standards. Even now, I see that there is a tendency to label teaching practices as CLIL and NON-CLIL at ease, highlighting the second one as non-professional. We should be aware of the dangers of this behaviour. If a teacher is honestly wondering if he’s CLIL-ing his classroom, we cannot react with horror. Asking ourselves about what we do and what we pursue with our teaching practices is part of our professional development, and it is precisely what leads us to change and to improve education. Wouldn’t it be better to say “This is what I do and how it works. Let’s share!”?

The second conclusion I drew from the Foro was the difficulties teachers are finding when a) assessing language and content in an integrated one, b) considering the role of literacy in their subject. Although I’ll try to give some clues in future posts to this blog, I’d like to advance that there is a need to increase collaborative work between content and language teachers. This hasn’t been articulated yet, but it is essential. The EFL subjects we know should be modified, as they cannot work as such in a bilingual context (they may work, but not as efficiently as they could). The role of the English subject has to be rethought and reshaped urgently if we want our bilingual projects to succeed.

To sum up, I found the Foro a good opportunity to exchange ideas and find out what teachers demand most. I really think we should shape in-service teacher training to make it closer to teachers’ reality, answering their questions and helping them find their way to CLIL. There isn’t only one “yellow brick road” to reach it, don’t feel afraid to say: This is my map!

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II Bilingual Campus at the Escuela Universitaria Cardenal Cisneros

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We are proud to announce that our University College will be holding the 2nd edition of the Bilingual Campus from 2nd July to 6th July, 2012. Workshops will take place from 9.30 to 14.30 and from 16.30 to 19, and will deal with a variety of topics related to CLIL in Primary and Infant Education.

This edition has been launched thanks to the collaboration of Edelvives, and will also be supported by other prestigious publishing houses, such as Vicens Vives, University of Dayton Publishing and Macmillan.

This training activity has been presented to be accredited by the Spanish Ministry of Education with 35 hours of training.

The II Bilingual Campus targets in-service Primary teachers. Students are welcome to enrol, but they will be placed in a waiting list. If there are places left, students will have the chance to attend the Campus. In this way, we ensure that in-service teachers willing to attend have more possibilities to do it.

If you wish to attend this training event, please click

If you wish to get more information about this training event, visit this link

If you need to ask information about the registration process, please contact:

We’re looking forward to meeting you in July!

Assessment and bilingual education

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Thanks to prof. Ana Halbach I had the chance to meet some of the teachers who started the bilingual project in Madrid in 2004. We were researching their training and perceptions about the project. At that time, many of them stated that they wanted to seize this opportunity as one that would grant students an authentic experience of language learning. “Communication will be the focus now “, most of them said.

Seven  years later many of those teachers find that, although they have achieved a communicative classroom working THROUGH English, assessment fails to be parallel to this progress.  “I don’t understand why children should be exposed to such a pressure when their language gains are evident”. “ I sometimes think that the administration does not trust us as evaluators of their progress” “English exams move the focus to language again, and everything we we’re fighting for is lost with this kind of assessment”. These are some of the comments I have heard along the last months and that prove that something must be done with assessment procedures.

I believe that good bilingual teaching does not need for external evaluators to check children’s language proficiency. What is more important is that children can use the language in natural contexts and can engage in high-order thinking process using English. This can be checked by observing students work in the classroom.  Language exams could be then used to check progress after some years (at least let’s wait for children to reach 11-12yrs old and have some abstract thinking!).

Watch out. We run the risk of teaching “for the exam” again. I see many teachers working at bilingual schools preparing long lists of vocabulary and structures which “are in the exam”. If that’s the only reason to teach them and not communicative aims, English will again be a dead language.

How is assessment organised in your country? Which other types of assessment could be included?  Do you consider Trinity/Cambridge exams a good option?