Language Skills Are Assessed in Novel State Test

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Results from a statewide foreign-language assessment in Connecticut--the nation's first large-scale test of students' language proficiency--are likely to accelerate the drive to overhaul curricula in the field, state and national officials predicted last week.

Data from the 1987 test, which were presented to the state board of education this month, provide evidence to confirm the view that speaking and listening to foreign languages in class forge a more effective route to proficiency than the traditional grammar- and literature-based curriculum, officials said.

Connecticut's test will "speed the national move to communication-based teaching,'' said C. Edward Scebold, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Though the state is not mandating that teachers change their instructional practices to reflect the favorable findings on in-class language use, said Joan B. Baron, program director of the Connecticut Assessment of Educational Progress, "when they see the evidence, they'll run to it.''

Language proficiency has been "widespread as an instructional goal,'' noted Kenneth A. Lester, a foreign-language consultant for the state's bureau of curriculum and instruction, "but there haven't been good outcomes.''

The assessment, he said, provides a "benchmark for how well we are attaining our goals.''

The results indicate, Mr. Lester noted, that students have a way to go. They performed best on the reading test, and least well in speaking and writing. And they did better on items requiring literal comprehension skills than on those that required them to make inferences or draw conclusions.

But the findings also suggest ways schools can improve their instructional practices to boost proficiency, Mr. Lester said.

In particular, he said, teachers should speak the foreign language exclusively, allow students to speak it as much as possible during class, and employ materials that use everyday vocabulary.

To help teachers who want to change their methods, state officials plan to develop materials and training programs on teaching for proficiency, and to hold a statewide conference on the subject.

In addition, they plan to conduct the assessment again in about five years to gauge students' progress.

New Direction

The foreign-language test was part of the Connecticut Department of Education's ongoing effort to assess student performance in each of the 11 subjects mandated by state law.

Pupils in the 4th, 6th, and 8th grades are tested annually in basic-skills subjects; in the other subjects, including social studies, science, and career education, students are tested every five years.

No other state currently tests students in foreign languages, although beginning in 1989, New York State will require students to take a Board of Regents examination in foreign languages in order to earn a Regents high-school diploma.

Lacking a model, the Connecticut department contracted with the Educational Testing Service, which develops the advanced-placement and achievement tests in foreign languages for the College Board, to develop the tests. The Scholastic Testing Service administered the tests and analyzed the results.

Officials agreed, Ms. Baron said, that the assessment should point to "the direction we want the program to go,'' rather than "mirror what is going on.''

The state's "common core of learning'' recommends that all students be able to communicate in a language other than English, she noted, and that served as the basis for the decision that the test would measure students' reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills.

A focus on such skills appears to run counter, Mr. Lester said, to the "humanistic'' view--expressed by U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and others--that foreign-language study should emphasize the literature and culture of other lands.

But, he said, state officials believe that language proficiency is the most appropriate instructional goal in such instruction.

"The business sector and the government sector say they need many more people who use foreign languages practically,'' said the consultant. "If we don't respond adequately to that, we will lose their support, and rightfully so.''

Modern Languages and Latin

The test was administered to a sample of 26,855 of the 45,000 high-school students enrolled in second-level courses or above in the four most popular modern languages--French, German, Italian, and Spanish--and in Latin.

Officials chose to test students in Latin because enrollments in that subject have been increasing, Ms. Baron said, and because the officials wanted to "say that's important, too.''

All students in modern-language courses took the reading and listening tests, as well as a separate test--in English--measuring knowledge of the customs, history, and geography of the areas where the language is spoken. Those in higher-level courses took a writing test, and a subset of 454 students took a speaking test, which consisted of a half-hour interview with one of 26 specially trained teachers.

Latin students took a test measuring reading-comprehension and grammar skills, as well as knowledge of the English derivation of Latin words and of Roman history and mythology.

The officials also surveyed students, teachers, principals, and foreign-language coordinators to determine their assessments of student abilities and gather data on classroom practices.

The tests were scored using the guidelines for proficiency developed by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. These standards rate students' proficiency as "novice,'' "intermediate,'' "intermediate high,'' and "advanced.''

Test Results

The results show that students generally did well on the tasks requiring "novice'' and "intermediate'' levels of proficiency, but relatively poorly on items requiring higher levels of proficiency. Performance improved over time, however.

For example, on the reading test, students in the French 3 course correctly answered 80 percent of the "novice'' items and 44 percent of the "advanced'' items. But those in French 6 correctly answered 95 percent of the "novice'' items and 76 percent of the "advanced'' items.

Other results show that:

  • In general, students performed relatively poorly on the speaking portion of the test. A majority of all students tested, except those in the most advanced German and Spanish courses, performed at the intermediate level or below.
  • On the culture test, most students were able to answer questions about European countries where the particular language is spoken, but were unable to answer questions about non-European countries employing it.
  • Latin students were able to demonstrate the Latin derivation of English vocabulary, but they had difficulty expressing the meaning of Latin passages in English.
  • Female students--who outnumbered males in French, Spanish, and Italian courses--generally outperformed males in reading, listening, and writing in the modern languages, and in grammar and reading comprehension in Latin. However, males outperformed females in the culture tests in Latin and Spanish.
  • The assessment is one of the few in which inner-city students outperformed their suburban and rural peers in a subject. Urban students--including many from Spanish-speaking homes--performed better than students from other communities in listening and writing in Spanish.

However, there were no differences between the two groups in the Spanish speaking test. Ms. Baron speculated that this may have been because the native Spanish-speakers employed non-standard Spanish at home.

The results' most immediate implication for instruction, officials agreed, is that teachers should try to speak the foreign language at all times during class.

'A Chance To Practice'

"In many classes, if teachers really want you to understand something, they tell it in English,'' said Mr. Lester. "That undermines the usefulness of a foreign language as a true communicative device.''

In addition, he said, teachers should use materials that employ vocabulary from everyday life, including newspapers and letters, rather than formal literary language.

Students who reported using everyday vocabulary scored higher on both the listening and reading tests than those who said they "never'' or "almost never'' do.

Teachers should also devote a portion of each class to allowing students to convey information in the foreign language, Mr. Lester suggested. "The only way students will learn to speak is to have a chance to practice,'' he said. "That's something that's not characteristically been done in foreign-language classes.''

Students who reported that they and their teachers use the foreign language at least half the time in class outperformed those who spoke English in class on all tests, including the reading test.

Breaking the Mold

The data also suggest that a longer period of foreign-language study is useful in developing proficiency. Students who had taken foreign-language courses before high school outperformed those who had not, and those who planned to continue their language studies did better than others.

The officials stopped short of recommending additional requirements, however.

"We are convinced that we can do more with what we have now,'' said Ms. Baron. "We haven't begun to tap our resources.''

Nevertheless, she noted, less than half of the state's high-school students are enrolled in a foreign-language course, and most who do enroll study the language for two years or less.

Nationally, according to the U.S. Education Department, almost a third of public-high-school students are enrolled in a foreign-language course--the largest proportion in almost 70 years. And 64 percent of high-school graduates in 1987 had taken at least one foreign-language course.

But Chester E. Finn Jr., the department's assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, noted that "these encouraging facts have an obvious downside: They mean that a third of our children graduate without taking even a single high-school course in a foreign language.''

"Generally around the country,'' added Mr. Lester, "students are advised to take a foreign language if they are in a college-preparatory course. That restricts enrollments, mostly, to college-preparatory students, who take the two or three years necessary for college admission.''

"We're trying to break that mold,'' he added. "Two or three years will not result in proficiency.''

Vol. 07, Issue 35

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