Friday, November 25, 2016

The Reasons and Mechanics behind Unannounced Assessments

This may be an odd opening for a language blog post, but roll with it, and I promise you'll see the connection after a few paragraphs:

Example A.
Up until a few years ago, my husband and I were involved in a sector of the food industry. At any time throughout the year, an inspector would come, without notice, to evaluate the cleanliness of the operations and to ensure that procedures were followed that allowed us to ship a product that was safe for consumption.  The inspections were unannounced because they wanted to evaluate the cleanliness and safety of the operation at any given point of time, rather than conduct the inspection after informing us on which date the inspection would take place.

Example B.
Once a month, at my school, our principals conduct an unannounced "walk-through" in each teacher's classroom.  The purpose is for the principals to see a snapshot of how the teachers are delivering instruction. If it were an announced observation, they would not know if what they were observing was an accurate example of the teacher's lessons or if the teacher prepared something out of the ordinary of what they usually do in order to get good marks on the observation. 

Why are these types of visits and inspections unannounced? Unannounced inspections or evaluations give a clear, accurate picture of the subject that is observed and evaluated on that particular day.

This brings me to the point of this post: Why do I use unannounced assessments in my world language classes?
Answer: to have a clear picture of my students' current understanding and their language abilities at any given moment; not to find out how much the students can retain in their memory after a study session preceding the assessment.

I have been giving unannounced formal and informal, formative and summative, assessments for several years, and each year I am more convinced that doing so provides me with accurate information about the students' abilities in the language.  

Below are a few points to consider regarding unannounced assessments:

1. Unannounced assessments and pop-quizzes are not the same
I've heard and read language teachers' discussions on "pop" quizzes and, for the most part, this type of quiz is given to ascertain if the students completed a certain task such as if they read a particular text, or if the students studied a vocabulary list or a certain aspect of the language, or if they competed their homework, (because by completing the homework, the students would have encountered the questions and answers on the "pop" quiz).  

Unannounced assessments, in my world language class, are given to determine the students' progress and skills in the language at any given point in time.  It is not based on material that was studied or memorized.

2. Unannounced assessments in my classroom are NOT "gotcha" situations.
Since I assess for a student's ability in the language, a "gotcha" quiz is non-existent in my classroom. Either the student has acquired the language and his answers on the quiz confirm that, or the student is still in the process of acquiring the language. It will only be a "gotcha" situation if the teacher is assessing if the student completed a task (refer back to #1 for an explanation).

When I give an assessment, I want the students to be able to shine and to show me their growth. There's no "gotcha" motive in sight, but rather "wow me and show me what you can do!"

3. Unannounced summative assessments require more effort on the teacher's part. 
I am constantly assessing my students, both formally and informally. Comprehension checks occur frequently throughout the class period; students are encouraged, almost to the point of required, to let me know when something I say is not comprehensible to them. When students are working with a partner, I may be standing next to one group of students, but I'm really listening to what is happening in another group several yards away. (I am blessed with terrific hearing!)  This listening and interacting with the students, along with the formative assessments, helps me to understand the students' abilities and guides me on when to give an unannounced summative assessment.  If I had planned to give my students a summative assessment, but through the above methods it is clear that they are not ready for the assessment, I postpone the assessment in order to provide additional comprehensible input for the students.

When students do poorly on an unannounced assessment, than it's an indication that, 1) the teacher didn't teach the material well, or 2) the teacher rushed the assessment and didn't allow adequate time for the students to grasp and acquire the language, or 3) the teacher was not successful in providing sufficient comprehensible input in an engaging manner . 

Has that happened to me? Yes, it has. When it happens, I have to step back and honestly reflect on the reasons for the students doing poorly. I look for patterns in their answers and writings, and for clues as to where the breakdown may have occurred. Then I go back to my lesson plans and look for weaknesses in the lessons. I ask the students for their thoughts on the assessment. When I intently search for the answer, almost without fail, it's clear where things went awry. At that point, I talk to the students, share my insights with them, tear up the assessments, and make the necessary changes to my plans that will help the students be successful in their language acquisition.   

There is nothing "routine" about teaching in a classroom with unannounced summative assessments. It requires me to be tuned into the students' progress, to be on the outlook for any misunderstandings or learning blocks they may encounter, and to be flexible as to when to give the assessment.
4. Students are more relaxed with unannounced assessments.
In my years of teaching, before I taught with Comprehensible Input as my goal, I used to announce dates for future quizzes and the content on those quizzes.  This resulted in students coming into class and pulling out notes or their textbooks to cram every last second of study time before taking the quiz or test.  They often said things such as "quick, give me the quiz/test before I forget everything". They were nervous because they knew the information that was floating in their short-term memory, from cramming the night before, or from cramming in the previous class, was a memory timebomb. If they didn't write the answers as quickly as possible, their memory was going to fail them.

I quickly learned, (but unfortunately was slow to admit and to change), that this type of testing didn't provide information on the students' ability and the the language they had acquired.  It wasn't valid, nor was it reproducible, without announcing the quiz again. Neither were the results of these assessments helpful in guiding my instruction. Those types of quizzes provided a grade for the grade book, but did little to identify the students' true abilities. 

Before I started teaching for language acquisition, I often heard those student comments. It made my heart sink because 1) I knew it wasn't an accurate assessment of the students' abilities, and 2) I realized the time and energy both the student and I invested in order for the student to "learn" the material, could disappear in a few short minutes. 

With unannounced assessments, those types of statements have disappeared. The students know that when I hand out an assessment, I am confident in their ability to do well on the assessment.

5. Unannounced assessments scare teachers more than students.
When teachers announce on which date an assessment will be given, this gives the students time to learn the material, and to study and/or review the material. Then, if a student does poorly on the announced quiz or test, the teacher can easily respond that the student did not do his part in preparing for the test. The blame, for lack of a better word, is placed on the student. If a parent is upset because his child did not receive the grade he wanted, the teacher can point out that it was the student's responsibility to seek out help before the assessment took place since it was announced x number of days in advance. 

Another benefit to announcing quizzes for the teacher, is that it is easier for a student to perform higher than his actual ability in the language. Those higher grades keep students and parents happy, especially those that are focused on the grade and its relation to GPA rather than its relation to one's ability to communicate in the language. 

6. Students, parents, and administrators need to understand the reason (and manner of teaching) behind unannounced assessments.
Each year when I meet a new group of students, it is my responsibility to explain how students are assessed in my classroom and why I give unannounced assessments.  As a whole, students know when they are receiving a grade in a class, (in any discipline), that doesn't match their abilities. I make it clear that my goal is to accurately assess them as I work with them to find ways in which they can increase their proficiency in the language. I encourage students to focus on listening and reading with the intent to understand, with their "focus" on the language (not the grade), and then the grade will follow rather than focus on a grade and hope the language ability will follow.

When students understand that my focus is on their language abilities and that I want to showcase their growth, then the trust in the classrooms increases and they perceive assessments in a different light. I provide assessments for them to highlight that growth. 

It's definitely a positive mindset for both the students and the teacher!

The tip of the iceberg.
Announced versus unannounced assessments is only the tip of the iceberg in the discussion on valid assessments and assigned grades.  Correctly assessing a student's proficiency in a language is a huge topic and certainly not one that can be discussed fully in a blog post. In my opinion, it's an area in which colleges should work more closely with educational students in preparing them on how to create accurate and valid assessments. 

For current WL teachers, it's a topic in which all of us could grow and improve through in-depth discussions and a willingness to listen to others and their experiences.   


Grading Categories:
In the world language department at my school, we are making a sincere effort to provide accurate measurements of the students' progress and to match that information to a letter grade.  It is an on-going journey as we view our assessments with a critical eye and sort them into the proper formative or summative category. We provide a large amount of informal and formal formative assessments, and a smaller number of summative assessments.  Our grading categories are:

4% Homework - because I believe that a student's willingness to do or not do homework should not have a huge impact on his grade
16% Class Work - includes any work completed in class that is graded, also includes formative quizzes
80% Summative - unannounced quizzes or assessments (which means the students have not prepared or studied for the assessment)

(It is possible that we may change the percentages for the next school year, to place a higher percentage in the summative category.)

I'm not saying that all of the assessments in my class are unannounced. For example, all students know when the final exam takes place. However, in a marking period, announced assessments that are recorded in the 80% summative category are few and far in between, if they even exist.

My colleague and I recently presented at ACTFL in Boston on assessments and in the 1 hour session we gave an overview on what we do in our classroom. Click HERE to see a brief summary of the main points in our session. If I had my way, assessments as we understand them now, would disappear from the WL classroom.  Until that happens, I will continue my journey in providing valid assessments that reflect the students' abilities in the language. 


  1. This is a fascinating post to read. I am very intrigued by the idea of unannounced assessments. In my program, as I make my way along the path of becoming a certified teacher I have encountered teachers who believe in giving tests or quizzes daily. I wonder if there might be some similarity in giving a quiz daily over material that the students haven't necessarily studied but did review is somewhat similar to unannounced assessments.

    Tests and quizzes promote a lot of stress in many students. They are worried as they study that they will be studying the wrong material, that what they dedicate their time to won't show up at all etc. I understand all of those feelings as I have Spansa student for many years. I have to say though that one year I had a realization that hit me like a ton of bricks. It was through the process and agony of studying that I truly learned the material. The memorization of the verbs, vocabulary etc. solidified the essential meaning of each important part of Spanish grammar. With that said, I believe in the inherent value in daily quizzes, unannounced tests and the standard planned tests and quizzes that give students so much anxiety. I wonder, if the principals practice unannounced visits regularly do teachers at your school change their practices as a result of the visits? Or do they continue to teach in the same way that they have always taught and think about making changes at a later date?

    Thank you for this thought-provoking post. I will consider this idea as I plan my classroom activities.

    M. Anatoly

    1. M. Anatoly,
      Thank you for commenting and sharing your thoughts on this blog post. It is always interesting to hear about others' experiences and ideas.
      To answer a few of your questions, I can not speak for other teachers regarding unannounced visits, which our principals do often, but for me, I welcome them. I want them to see that it doesn't matter if the visit is announced or unannounced, they will observe lessons designed with the students in mind with the goal to help students acquire the language in a friendly setting. There are many days I'm actually hoping they come to visit because I want them to see what the students can do!

      In response to your comment "It was through the process and agony..." I would like to recommend that you visit a site with podcasts on second language teaching and recent research. The archives of the podcasts are on the website, Tea with BVP. The most recent podcast was on Top myths about Language Acquisition and language teaching (episode 43) and The Role of Conscious Knowledge in SLA (episode 41). Those two podcasts are packed full on discussion of those topics, including a comment that SLA does NOT have to be "agonizing".
      Here is the link:
      Tea with BVP

      Happy listening!

      (You may want to skip the first 8 minutes of banter and go directly to the "meat" of the podcasts. It's informative and solid advice and information.)

  2. Thanks for the great blog post! It really got me thinking.

    I’ve noticed that students often learn the material to do well on the assessment and then quickly forget it after. Unannounced assessments seem to be a way to work towards solving this problem and it sounds like you create a classroom environment where unannounced assessments do not raise levels of anxiety.

    I’m curious to know a little bit about what unannounced assessments look like in your classroom. Do they require students to use what they have learned in the past as well (such as different grammar)? Do they sometimes require the students to use the language creatively or do they often have questions with one correct answer?

    Again, thanks for the great post!

    1. Hi Janelle
      Many of the assessments I use in class are what I call OPEN assessments because they do not require one specific answer. For example, on a recent assessment, I listed two places "a concert in Philadelphia" and "an afternoon at a beach in New Jersey". The students chose one of the two places and imagined that they went there with their friends. They had to write 10 sentences (with different verbs) to say what they did at that location. For the first 5, I had 8 verbs listed in English and they chose which 5 of the 8 they were going to use in a sentence. For the second set of 5, the students could use any verb as long as it had a connection to visiting the place they chose.
      Sometimes I have them add more details to a written story, other times write what will happen next or what one of the characters thought about the actions of another character. These types of assessments, in which they can use the language creatively, actually show me what students can do, not what they have studied (how my old assessments were designed).
      Since I recycle the language, subsequent assessments require students to respond with previous language.

      I was listening to Bill Van Patten's last three podcasts in which he said, "We need to do away with seat time and we need to do away with grades. What we should have are exit requirements or proficiency requirements that say if you are at X level; then you can place out of levels" for which you have already demonstrated your skills. "So then, the motivation is Intermediate Mid (or whatever they are reaching for); not a grade.

      If you're interested in hearing more about second language acquisition and how to teach for proficiency, check out the podcasts at:
      Tea with BVP

      Happy Listening!!