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Creating an Assessment Unit
Process: Backwards Design
When creating an assessment unit, we are designing backwards and planning with the end in mind.
“Backward design may be thought of as purposeful task analysis: Given a task to be accomplished, how do we get there? Or, one might call it planned coaching: What kinds of lessons and practices are needed to master key performances?…Rather than creating assessments near the conclusion of a unit of study (or relying on the tests provided by textbook publishers, which may not completely or appropriately assess our standards), backward design calls for us to operationalize our goals or standards in terms of assessment evidence as we begin to plan a unit or course.”
As you look at the flow chart, notice first that the flow is not in one direction. There is a sequence indicated by the order of the boxes from the top to the bottom of the page. However, all of the elements represented in the boxes are related. This means that you need constantly check back and forth among these elements to make sure that everything is in sync. For example, when you begin planning your instructional strategies, you may realize that some of the vocabulary you need is missing and must be added to the list you give to your students. Likewise, you may find that some of the vocabulary you originally listed is not useful. Again, you need to revise your list.
Let’s begin at the top of the flow chart with the Standards. These are the National Standards for Foreign Language Learning, developed in 1999. States and school districts may have developed their own state and local standards. Generally, these documents reflect the overarching goals of the National Standards. The standards tell us in broad terms what should be taught in foreign language classrooms. A well-constructed performance assessment unit will incorporate all of the Five ‘C’s of the National Standards. The Standards are the foundation that influences all other decisions about planning a unit of instruction. They should be a constant point of reference as you plan our assessment unit.
With the Standards as a mindset, you can now select a theme. The theme has to reflect important learning—the theme has to be worth studying. It should address a “big idea” that has enduring value beyond the classroom (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998). For example, many foreign language students learn about clothing. Using “clothing” as the thematic center is not particularly intriguing: it is not a big idea.
Think beyond a vocabulary theme to an important question: do you form opinions about people based on what they wear? Is what you wear a reflection of your personality? Do you stereotype people by their clothing styles? Would your characterizations of people based on what they wear be valid in another culture? A “big idea” might be responding to the question: “Does clothing tell a story?” You have now changed a vocabulary-based theme into an intriguing question to engage your students, a question that has value beyond the language classroom.
Goals / Objectives
After selecting the theme, you need to articulate why you are teaching this theme. What are your goals/objectives for this unit? You might think that the Standards are why you are teaching a particular theme. This is correct but remember that the Standards are broad statements. Goals/objectives are specific to the particular unit you are planning. What do you want the students to know and be able to do at the end of the unit? When determining goals/objectives, it is best to begin by brainstorming all the possible ideas related to the theme. Next organize the ideas into related categories. Finally, prioritize what is most important, what is most interesting, what helps respond to the theme. You should narrow your focus to three to five objectives/goals that are interrelated, that reflect increased communication, greater cultural insights, and an understanding of the theme.
When you have your goals/objectives in place, you need to ask yourself: How will you know that the students have achieved the goals and objectives? This is your performance assessment, which is really at the heart of your unit. The performance assessment is the application of learning to a real-life situation. The performance assessment includes the three modes of Communication: interpersonal, interpretive, and presentational.
Structures / Functions, Vocabulary, Resources
The next step in the flow chart is familiar ground. In order to successfully complete the performance assessment, what structures/functions and vocabulary are needed? And what resources are available to help teach the theme. Perhaps as you have thought about teaching a unit, you have started by saying “I need to teach past tense now” or “I need to teach clothing now.” By designing the assessment first, you can now purposefully select structures and vocabulary that will help the students reach the goals you have set for the unit.
Now, you can plan your daily lessons. You can now choose activities and strategies that will help students successfully complete the performance assessment. Your attention is now centered on the students: what do they need to do to get ready for the performance assessment. Here is where you incorporate games, pairwork, quizzes, homework, skits, class discussions, research, internet activities, videos, reading practice, learning checks.
With your planning complete, it is time to look back at the process to make sure that all the parts are interrelated. All aspects of your planning should lead to the performance assessment, the application of what the students learned in the thematic unit (see next page).