Navigating the Language Assessment Road(s) in Pandemic Times:
Lessons from Brazil
Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo, Brazil
When Robert Frost wrote the poem The Road Not Taken1 in the beginning of the last century, he must not have imagined that the iconic last stanza calling readers to blaze new trails, travel the less-traveled roads as a way to celebrate breaking paradigms would resonate
until today. The COVID-19 pandemic, which reached Brazil in March of 2020, has disrupted the usual models of academic support and therefore posed a number of challenges to language pedagogy (Ross & DiSalvo, 20202). Stakeholders, administrators, teachers and students saw themselves in the midst of an unprecedented crisis that closed down campuses, suspended classes and changed everyone’s (or almost everyone) modus operandi. And, as any event of such colossal magnitude, it called for immediate response of societies, pushing schools from all around the world to rush up contingency plans to face the difficulties posed by the disruption.
It is safe to say that this reality was not different in Brazil. As we enter our 5th month into this pandemic, schools are still discussing the possibility(ies) to return to face-to-face classes and making adaptions to their contingency plans as we watch numbers of COVID-19
victims continue to grow. Online classes, remote administrative work, online meetings, a lot of videoconferencing, lives, webinars, you name it, most activities now are done using digital technology. Despite the lack of access to internet for a great sum of the 210 million Brazilians
(about 45 million Brazilians have no access to internet3), this type of digital technology also permeated most of the interactions between teachers and students/administrators and teachers during the pandemic (Có, Amorim & Finardi, submitted4). Private schools and language
institutes were quick to assume that face-to-face classes could move into virtual environments. Overnight (sometimes, sadly, literally), teachers had to adapt lesson plans, record classes, contact students, learn how to handle technology they had not experimented before, etc.
In metaphorical terms, navigating this road has not been easy. And, to start pondering where this (or these?) road(s) may take us is quite a daunting and puzzling task. Early in my career, I had the opportunity to take a course on language assessment with Kathleen Graves and she very wisely gave us one of those quotes for moments she faced challenges in her career and that we should hold dear to our hearts or, in my case, on a post-it note at my desk: “Sometimes, there is no answer to give, but there is certainly an answer to find.”
At the Languages Center (LC) of the Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo (Federal University of Espírito Santo, UFES, Brazil), where I have worked for many years, we have had the same concerns as other language institutes: having to choose the best platform amongst a
myriad of reasonable options, having to train teachers and students, having to provide support for both teachers, students and administrative staff, and many more. But we soon realized that there was one driving force that could lead the way and shine some light in the dark and sometimes bumpy road that lies ahead of us: assessment.
I have recently started pondering about the functions of a GPS and how it metaphorically can connect to our lives and add so much meaning. A GPS is an instrument which provides directions, alternatives, routes so that one can arrive at a planned destination.
Perhaps, some these routes or roads that the GPS programs for you have never been taken or have been very marginally explored. What if assessment worked just like a GPS for a language institute?
Let me share some of the lessons we took at the LC at UFES from these wavering and strenuous pandemic times. We are just now finishing midterm exams and we, despite our longterm reputation with performance-based assessment and teacher-training for that matter, felt like we were back at square one, probably like many other teachers and administrators. Ross and DiSalvo (2020) reported that assessment was also a bone of contention for them at their languages center at Harvard University, which changed for a satisfactory/unsatisfactory system for all courses, causing an immediate drop in student motivation with some students petitioning
for a letter grade in their reports in order to improve their Grade Point Average (GPA).
With that in mind, in our planning process at LC/UFES, after going through the hassles of roads of adapting into this virtual mode (we only had face-to-face courses), we delved into the assessment road. And let me tell you how clear it became that the moment we started thinking about assessing our students was when we clicked that our assessment is our GPS. How does a GPS work? Someone needs to program it. You have to set up a destination, the type or types of route you wish to take, how fast you need/want to arrive – depending on how you set up your GPS you will have a certain travel experience: faster, longer, cheaper, more expensive, more agreeable, etc. Can you change along the way? Yes! The GPS recalculates the journey with different coordinates!
What does that have to do with assessment? We thought that fundamental assessment principles like validity, reliability, practicality, authenticity, usefulness and washback helped us keep the eyes on the road. In other words, the questions (which we asked ourselves) you should be asking in these confusing and daunting times are: what is it that we value most in our school? What is it we should absolutely not part with when moving from a face-to-face environment into a virtual one?
In the design/adaptation of our courses for/into the virtual environment, we thought that we wanted to keep our goal (our destination) of achieving communicative competence in reading, speaking, listening and writing with authentic communicative tasks and meaningful interaction with our students. And why am I saying that assessment principles were coordinates that programmed the GPS that guided us through less traveled road(s) now of transitioning/adapting from face-to-face to virtual mode classes at LC/UFES? Thinking about our assessment practices has helped us navigate these roads with more confidence that we are going to arrive at our destination safely. As we prepared our virtual assessment instruments in all four abilities we made sure to follow the coordinates. Some questions that helped us: Is this task meaningful? Does it test what (the ability, for example) it is supposed to test? Is it authentic? Is this test going to be easy to administer? Are the instructions clear to all? Can this test instrument provide consistent results? Is this test useful, are the tasks in it real-world replicable? Is this instrument aligned with instruction provoking positive washback in students and teachers?
Overall, the feedback, so far, has been positive, which means the trip has been pleasant (for the most part) to all. Frost called upon trail blazers over a century ago and we probably never thought we would be caught off guard like that in the XXI century, although the literature has been pointing to that direction (to the role of technology in education) for a while, as Có, Amorim and Finardi assert (submitted). For now, we keep on navigating the less traveled roads of today, but certain that, in our hearts we hold what is true to us and wherever roads we may travel by, our good values and principles help us arrive at the destination: Home.
1 […] I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. [excerpt]
The entire poem is available at: https://poets.org/poem/road-not-taken. Accessed on July 17th 2020.
2 Ross, A. F., & DiSalvo, M. L. (2020). Negotiating displacement, regaining community: The Harvard Language
Center’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. Foreign Language Annals.
3 Available at: https://educa.ibge.gov.br/jovens/materias-especiais/20787-uso-de-internet-televisao-e-celular-nobrasil.
html, Accessed on July 19th 2020.
4 Có, E., Amorim, G. & Finardi. K. Language Teaching in Pandemic Times: Experiences with technologies in
virtual environments. (Paper submitted at ReDoC).