Graphic of hands pointint to colored boxes of assessment words and symbols
Teacher's Corner: Making Meaningful Assessments
This month’s Teacher’s Corner focuses on making and designing meaningful assessments to use in the English language classroom. We will begin the month by examining what makes a meaningful assessment and then offer a series of assessment ideas that you can use and adapt to fit the needs of you and your students.

Tests, quizzes, homework, worksheets, journals, games, and activities are all tools we use to understand to what depth our students are learning the skills we teach. In teaching, we commonly refer to these tools as assessments, and they are an integral part of teaching and learning.

This month’s Teacher’s Corner focuses on making and designing meaningful assessments to use in the English language classroom. We will begin the month by examining what makes a meaningful assessment and then offer a series of assessment ideas that you can use and adapt to fit the needs of you and your students.

Considerations in Assessment Design

Test writers consider a number of components when they design large-scale and small-scale assessments. While most teachers are not professional test writers, it is important to recognize and understand the components of appropriate assessments. These include: practicality, validity, reliability, authenticity, and wash back. Let’s take a closer look at each of these elements.


Practicality refers to the ease of design and use for both teachers and learners (Brown, 2004). Is the assessment easy to give and score? Can the assessment be given and scored within a reasonable amount of time? Occasionally, we are faced with highly detailed assignments or scoring rubrics. On first glance, these assessments seem strong, but when we try to use them we find that they are time-consuming and tedious. Instead, we need give careful attention to the practicality of our assessments in order for them to be considered successful.


Validity focuses on whether a test accurately measures what it intends to measure. For test writers, validity is by far the most difficult and complicated component to measure. Let’s look at an example to see how we might consider validity in a classroom assessment. You and your students have just completed a series of lessons about writing thesis statements. You have spent a lot of time teaching students that each thesis statement must have a topic and a controlling idea. How do we find out if students have learned how to write thesis statements according to our guidelines? One possible assessment is to give learners a topic that is familiar to them and ask them to write a thesis statement about the topic. We must then consider how to score this assessment. We could make the sentence worth three points according to the criteria described in the lessons: a) Is the sentence a complete sentence? b) Is the topic listed? c) Does the writer give a controlling idea? While this may sound simple, it is a valid assessment of writing thesis statements because it measures what has been taught through a similar task.


In order to make a strong assessment, we want to see consistency and dependability across testing (Brown, 2004). Consistency points to the idea that every time an assessment is scored or taken, results will be similar when everything else is equal. If two students of similar abilities take a reliable assessment, then they will get similar scores. At the same time, if two teachers separately score a reliable assessment, they will produce similar results. Reliability is easy to maintain in objective assessments with right or wrong answers but can be more difficult in subjective assessments. For example, we know that the simple past tense for do is did. English language teachers would reliably score did as the correct form of simple past for do. We might see more variation in teachers scoring student presentations where the potential mistakes and successes students make are less clearly identifiable. Reliable rubrics can help ease the bias that scorers bring to assessments or that different types of learners bring to unclear tasks, but full reliability is not always possible. Regardless, we must still work toward creating assessments that reliably produce results and relevant feedback.


In terms of authenticity, we are looking at the realistic nature of the assessment. In language teaching and learning, authenticity often comes up in both material and assessment design. As English language teachers, it is important to create realistic or authentic opportunities to practice language. Materials, activities, and assessments are measured in terms of how well they prepare learners to communicate outside the classroom. In test design, authenticity is also important. Will the assessment be an authentic and applicable task or too arbitrary for real-world applications? As teachers, we want authenticity so that our assessments will be as relevant and useful to the learning process as possible.


Washback is an aspect of testing that plays a larger role in testing and assessment than most of us realize. In washback, we are looking at how much an assessment influences our teaching and our students’ learning. When we talk about “teaching to the test,” we are talking about washback. Well-designed assessments are viewed as the answer to some of our biggest teaching and learning concerns. As a result, we turn away from innovative and relevant lessons to focus on test-related lessons. In such situations, the test becomes the answer, and we become more attuned to preparing students for a test than providing them with all of the skills they need in order to be successful in the English language classroom. As teachers, we need to take special care not to fold to the demands of a strong assessment, but instead, focus on the language needs and goals of our learners.


Brown, H. D. (2004). Language assessment: Principles and classroom practices. White Plains, NY:              Pearson Longman.

Additional Resources

For additional information about language assessment, check out these resources and many others available on the American English website:

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Table of Contents

Activity 1 - Exit TicketsExpand

Keeping up with the progress of all of our students is challenging. Overseeing large classes, multiple learners’ needs, and multi-level classes are often barriers to adequately tracking learning. There are solutions to these challenges that can be implemented easily and take up very little time all while producing relevant feedback and results for further use in planning and understanding our students’ needs.

Using simple, formative assessments can be a great way to check in on student progress. In this week’s Teacher’s Corner, we show you an easy way to check in on your students’ learning and progress. Using “exit tickets” is a way to ask students to recall what they’ve learned. In order to exit class, they must turn in a ticket with their responses. You can then take a few minutes to see what went well and what needs review in the next class. It’s a simple, easy way to check their progress. In fact, this technique is so easy that you should try it in your next class.


Any level

Language Focus



During this activity, teachers will be able to:

  • Identify what students learned by the end of a lesson.
  • Recognize what learners will need to review during the next class.
  • Use feedback to identify possible adaptations in related future lessons.


  • Paper and pencils for students


  • Plan to save five minutes of the end of your lesson to complete this assessment.


1.     Five minutes before the end of class, give each learner a pencil and piece of paper. This will be their exit ticket.

2.     Tell students to write down one thing they learned in the class that day and one question they have about something they learned.

3.     When finished, collect all of the papers from learners and read them when you have time before the next class.

4.     In order to best utilize the feedback from students and to target student needs, here are some suggestions:

a.            If your class size is manageable, write down a response to each learner’s question and return to students during the next class.

b.            Make note of common questions among students. At the beginning of the next class, plan to use the first five minutes (or as much time as needed) to respond to and review the questions posed.

c.            Return the cards to learners during the next class. Then, put students into small groups (2 to 4 people per group) and have them work together to answer the questions on their cards.

d.            Before class, review the students’ comments and answers on the cards. Start with the information the students wrote about what they learned. After reading carefully, prepare a set of questions that focus on this information to ask at the beginning of the next class. For example, if a learner writes, “a thesis statement must include a topic and a controlling idea”, write a review question that asks, “What must a thesis statement include?” Questions that set students up for success give them a chance to show and share what they know. In addition, you know that all students will successfully answer at least one question while also reviewing a lot of other information from the previous lesson.

5.     In this type of assessment, it is essential that you take time to review the exit tickets before proceeding. The exit tickets are used to provide valuable and relevant information about what did and did not go well in the lesson. Use the information to adapt and redefine your own teaching of the material.


An alternative to a written exit ticket is a verbal exit ticket. The verbal exit ticket is particularly useful if you have extra time at the end of class and your class is a manageable size. Before students finish for the day, ask each learner to share one thing they learned and one question they have. You can do this privately with each student or as a large group with students speaking to the whole group.

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Activity 2 - Diagnostic AssessmentExpand

As teachers at the start of a new school year, we carefully plan our curricula and daily lessons as much as we can before we even meet our students. We want to be prepared for the first day of classes and, if we are lucky, we have some idea of the needs of our students and the demands of the course in terms of levels, skills, and content. More often, we don’t have a complete understanding of our students’ needs until we see them in the classroom. And even then, it can take us many weeks to fully understand the language learning needs of each learner and the class as a whole. Diagnostic assessments can help us recognize and identify what our students’ language learning needs are much earlier in a course.

Justification for Diagnostic Testing

Diagnostic testing serves several purposes for teachers and students. Diagnostics can help identify what skills and sub skills teachers need to include in the curriculum. For example, if you give a pronunciation diagnostic and identify that many students are struggling with a particular vowel sound, you can use the information to determine to what extent this particular vowel sound needs to be part of the curriculum.

Diagnostic testing can also give learners information about their own skills and abilities. When students begin a course, they might begin with a vague idea as to what they can and cannot do in terms of language communication. By offering them a diagnostic, teachers are giving students a starting point for their learning path. With this information, teachers can chart a course for the class as a whole while recognizing the needs of particular individuals.

Finally, diagnostic testing prepares teachers for the individual limitations and abilities of language learners. When we have a firmer understanding of each student, we are better prepared to support each student according to his or her language needs and goals. We are often focused on the successes of the majority of learners, but as teachers we cannot ignore the needs and goals of learners who struggle. Diagnostic testing helps teachers address the needs of all students, those successful and struggling. When teachers know about the individual needs of their learners, they can tailor extra work and attention, through differentiated instruction to meet those individual needs.

Sources for Diagnostic Tests

Some of us work in programs where diagnostic tests are a part of the education system, but these shouldn’t be confused with placement tests. Placement tests are often devised and handled by administrators and teachers, as a way to identify the class appropriate to each learner’s abilities. Diagnostic tests are often used once a class has started as a way to target a particular skill that is emphasized in the class (Brown, 2004). And while these two types of tests can provide valuable information to educators, diagnostic tests are focused on more discrete points.

Some examples of diagnostic tests include:

  • Pronunciation diagnostic where students individually read a passage aloud. Teachers then make notes as to students’ strengths and weaknesses in areas such as: word stress, vowel sounds, intonation, etc.
  • Writing diagnostics are given to identify a student's ability in terms of vocabulary, sentence structure, organization of ideas, and grammar usage. A typical writing diagnostic might ask students to write for thirty minutes about any given question. The questions are often written so that most people, in spite of language level, can respond to the idea. For a lower group of learners, an example prompt is, “Write about your hometown,” while more advanced learners might be asked to describe a problem in their hometown. Both of these topics are fairly universal and encourage easy discussion among a majority of learners, so the test’s emphasis is on writing skills and not content knowledge.

These are two examples of assessments that can be prepared and designed by the teacher of the class if no diagnostic test is available. Other resources for diagnostic testing design are offered below.


Brown, H. D. (2004). Language assessment: Principles and classroom practices. White Plains, NY:              Pearson Longman.

Brown, J. D. (1996). Testing in language programs. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.

American English Resources

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Activity 3 - Self-AssessmentExpand

Learners are powerful allies in the assessment process. If adequately trained and guided, learners can add beneficial and relevant information about their language learning to support the observations and findings of teachers. In this week’s Teacher’s Corner, we will look at the role students play in assessment through assessment creation and self-reflection.

Some teachers might be reluctant to hand the power of assessment over to learners, but two core aspects of language learning strongly support such sharing of power: autonomy and intrinsic motivation (Brown, 2004). Learner autonomy plays a big role in language learning, as it is self-guided language use beyond the classroom that further reinforces language development and acquisition. At the same time, intrinsic motivation (the motivation that comes from within a person to succeed) plays a role in successful learning. Many learners have a “self-propelled desire to excel,” and this desire to succeed is underscored (emphasized) when learners are involved in the learning and assessment process (Brown, 2004, p. 270). Additional research also suggests that learners are fairly accurate in predicting and assessing their own abilities (2004). Therefore, we should utilize what learners know about themselves and their own abilities as a tool for developing curriculum and informing lesson planning.

Self-Assessment Ideas

Checklists, rubrics, and questionnaires offer options for learners to assess both their learning processes and language performance. Self-reflection on the learning process, or metacognitive skills, gives learners a chance to identify their own strengths and weaknesses as they learn. For example, a simple list of questions about participation and attention, where students rate their abilities on a scale of 1 to 5, can help a teacher identify what students are doing and thinking while working through the learning process.

I listen when the teacher gives directions.

1        2          3         4         5

I ask questions when I don’t understand.

1        2          3         4         5

I participate in groups.

1        2          3         4         5

I participate in class activities.

1        2          3         4         5

This kind of self-reflection asks the learner to stop and think about their performance in class, and targets a specific aspect of their learning. The teacher can use this feedback to identify any discrepancies between actual student performance and student self-perceptions. Once discrepancies or similarities are recognized, teachers can then take steps to reconcile the differences and reinforce the similarities. Here’s an example based on the above self-reflection. A student rates his participation high, but the teacher notices that the student rarely talks in groups or class. As a result, the teacher can see that there is a discrepancy between what the student believes he does and what he actually does. Perhaps the student doesn’t understand the expectations associated with participation or the teacher has not clearly explained these expectations. Either way, the teacher can use this information as a way to better understand the needs of the student and further support the student’s success in the classroom. Perhaps the teacher can use the information to meet with the student to discuss participation expectations or spend time in class reviewing the expectations for all students. By completing regular self-reflections on process and metacognitive skills, learners feel invested in the process and also provide valuable feedback that supports teacher planning and involvement.

Another type of self-assessment gives learners a chance to assess their own language acquisition. Depending on the skill and task, a teacher can use lesson/unit objectives to create a checklist for learners to use as they review their own work, or the teacher and students can work together to develop a checklist. Here is an example of such a checklist, one created for an early draft of a paragraph writing assignment.

Paragraph Checklist

My paragraph has a topic sentence.



My topic sentence contains a topic.



My topic sentence contains a controlling idea.



My paragraph has a sentence that explains how my example relates to my topic.



My paragraph has one example of my topic and controlling idea.



My paragraph has a concluding sentence that restates my topic sentence.



Once students have assessed their own writing, they can be tasked with further activities related to their answers. For example, for every no answered on the checklist, the teacher asks the student to redo that part of the paragraph as a part of the revision process. This checklist can also be used again with slightly different wording for future revisions of the paragraph and can be adapted for a number of different skills and activities.  For example, a speaking task might have learners record a message to set up a doctor’s appointment. In the task, learners must:

  • state their names
  • say the reason they are calling
  • ask for someone to return their call at the number given
  • say thank you

After students record themselves, they can use a checklist while they listen to their own recording and see if they fulfilled the requirements of the assignment. After each student has checked his or her own recording, he or she can redo it in an effort to fix the things missed in the first recording. This type of self-assessment puts the task, learning, and revision in the hands of learners, furthering their sense of autonomy. Self-assessments of objective tasks are not limited to speaking, but can also be used for spelling, vocabulary, or grammar practice. In these types of self-assessments, learners are given the correct answers or rules and are asked to fix their own mistakes rather than relying on the teacher to make the corrections. When learners are involved in the correction process, their memory and acquisition of the skill are better enhanced and teachers are freed up to focus on other tasks.

The overarching idea in self-assessment and reflection is to involve the learner in the assessment process as a way to increase motivation and learner autonomy. As teachers, facilitating language learning is only part of our job. We also want to develop self-motivated, autonomous learners who can succeed beyond our classrooms. In assessment, we can utilize the knowledge students have about their own processes to inform and foster motivation and autonomy.


Brown, H. D. (2004). Language assessment: Principles and classroom practices. White Plains, NY:Pearson Longman.

American English Resources

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Activity 4 - Peer AssessmentsExpand

Peer assessments offer valuable opportunities for students to engage in the assessment process. Not only do students receive extra feedback from other listeners/readers, but they also get a chance to observe, comment on, and learn from the language abilities of their classmates. In this week’s Teacher’s Corner, we examine the value of peer assessments in the English language classroom and offer several ways for teachers to use peer assessments in the classroom regardless of content or skill.

Rationale of Peer Assessments

Teachers and students sometimes hesitate to fully embrace peer assessments. Some teachers feel as if they are the only ones qualified to give feedback and assess learning, and many students tend to agree. Additionally, students often feel unable or unwilling to give feedback that is useful or relevant. As a result, both teachers and students might shy away from peer assessments, losing a critical opportunity for language development. We need to remember that peer assessment and feedback engages learners in two learning strategies that are vital in the language classroom: cooperative and collaborative learning. In both of these strategies, students work together to complete activities, navigate tasks, and negotiate meaning. By emphasizing cooperative and collaborative learning activities, the teacher gives students a stake in their own learning. By creating cooperative and collaborative opportunities in assessment, students work together to find correct answers and give equally valid feedback on language skills.

In order for peer assessments to be successful, teachers need to offer clear expectations for tasks and assessments, train students in the process, explain the importance of peer feedback, and emphasize the value of students’ abilities to contribute to their classmate’s language development. All of this takes some planning on the part of the teacher, but once students are trained, they can take greater control of their own learning.

Peer Assessment Suggestions

For teacher-designed peer assessments, the teacher creates the assessment form, process, and instructions for students to use during a peer assessment activity. Reviewing the material and modeling the assessment process can go a long way in achieving success. One example of a teacher-designed peer assessment is writing task peer evaluations. The teacher-designed writing task peer evaluation shown below is a standard, highly-guided peer evaluation form that one might see used for a research paper. [insert sample here]

In this example, students first answer very specific questions about their classmate’s essay. Then, they complete an outline via a template, which gives them more freedom to interpret the essay. By providing a structured peer assessment, the teacher is able to guide students through the peer assessment process. The teacher encourages and utilizes the knowledge students have learned in class and gives them a chance to apply their knowledge to a classmate’s work. The teacher also limits what learners evaluate, which helps them focus on assessment of skills that are within their range of abilities. In this sense, learners are not taxed with responsibilities beyond their abilities nor are they overwhelmed by tasks.

For the second part of this peer assessment, students outline the essay of their classmate using an essay outline template that they have used in preparing their own essays. By writing an outline, the learners interpret what they read and paraphrase it for their classmates. This valuable feedback helps the writer know what they need to revise and helps readers understand what makes for strong, clear writing. In addition, peer assessments, particularly in writing, remind learners that their reading audience is much larger than just a single teacher, and gives learners an opportunity to utilize their reading skills to support their classmates’ writing skills.

Another form of peer assessment includes involving the learners in the development of the assessment. Depending on the task that needs assessment, teachers ask students to develop the evaluation guidelines for the peer assessment. The students can handle this task as long as the assignment or tasks objectives are clearly explained. In this type of peer assessment, learners work in groups and generate a checklist of the information/content that they want to evaluate. This list can be negotiated as a larger group or can be used to meet the more specific needs of each pair of students. This means that each pair of learners will have slight differences in their checklists according to their own needs and expectations; however, since the assessment is rooted in a clearly defined assignment, most checklists should be similar. The checklists can then be used as a framework for a related assessment. Let’s look at a more specific example of turning a checklist into a peer assessment.

Leading a discussion in class is a great task to help students learn about the elements of facilitating successful discussions.  Students are each asked to find a prompt for the discussion they will lead (the prompt could be a short essay or article, a video, a thoughtful question, or a quote depending on the length and purpose of the discussion). Learners are then grouped into small groups (between 4 to 6 students) and each learner takes a turn in leading and facilitating a discussion based on his or her own prompts. Before the discussions begin, the teacher and learners can work together to come up with a checklist of what is involved in a well-facilitated discussion. The learners can use the checklist as a guide for planning their own discussions and the teacher can use the checklist to plan a peer assessment. Each learner will then evaluate their classmates on their discussion-leading skills using a simple rubric rooted in the student-created checklist.

Discussion Activity Feedback (1 is the lowest and 5 is the highest)

Discussion leader introduced the topic clearly.

1     2     3     4     5

Discussion leader involved all participants in the discussion.

1     2     3     4     5

Discussion leader asked follow-up questions and clarified comments of participants.

1     2     3     4     5

Discussion leader asked relevant questions during the discussion.

1     2     3     4     5

Discussion leader concluded the discussion with a summary of the main ideas presented and discussed.

1     2     3     4     5

Comments _____________________________________________________


Total Score   ___________/25

Learners can complete these feedback forms anonymously or with their names on them depending on what the teacher/students choose. Anonymous peer assessments in tasks like this can generate more honest, realistic feedback; however, if learners are in a classroom with a strong community, peer assessments can work well without anonymity. Finally, encouraging comments can be an added benefit for all students. Sometimes, free comments are too difficult, so this task can be modified by asking students to identify something the discussion leader does well and something that needs improvement.


Two things discussion leader did well:




One thing discussion leader can improve:


Peer assessments can provide valuable feedback to students. When peer assessment is guided and learners are trained, the results can be transformative in terms of how well learners are able to work together and recognize the progression of their language learning. At the same time, learners feel more confident when they are given a chance to share their opinions and feedback with their classmates.


Brown, H. D. (2004). Language assessment: Principles and classroom practices. White Plains, NY: Pearson Longman.

American English Resources

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