Is Competency Based Assessment Useful for Older Language Learners?

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For some time now, I have been having some reservations about the effectiveness and value of the competency based form of assessment that my paymasters have asked that I use in my class of older English as a second language (ESL) learners.

For starters, I don’t think that I am that competent to give what is generally called an objective “competency standard.”  A number of items in a portfolio, including can-do lists, which by themselves seem to put too much pressure on older learners, still leave me questioning myself: What is my standard of competence? And am I assessing my students against my standard of competence?  And not what I think they can do?  Is the notion of competency superseding everything else in class?  The questions keep popping up. And the more they do, the less competent I feel. 

The main advantage of a competency based education is that it is a personalized, student focused endeavour. An individual is given every opportunity to learn step by step at his or her pace; no one is lumped into one module or semester. (In trade and vocational schools, the competency based assessment seems to work well; learners master one aspect of something before proceeding to another aspect. It is more doing; competencies matter.  The subject matter is not important. Subjects such as history, government, and civics, I think, need be taught to maintain a common culture—the strength of our democracy). I would certainly be happy to see my learners be competent in the entire tasks they would encounter outside the classroom. My concern is that there is never the time (or if otherwise, I hope my colleagues would tell me how they find the time) to prepare individual learning plans for each and every learner.  How do you identify each competency, its necessary accompanying skills, and its complimentary activities? Also, it’s trying to assess a whole class while they are doing certain tasks. How about portfolio keeping? All that, it seems, is a very tall order.

But I am still pushing on.

In the meantime, my older adults are in no rush, I must confess, to move from one level to another. The majority are not preparing for the labour market or academia. I work from the themes and the topics that were identified at the beginning of the term. I add new ones because we have continuous intake and external assessment. Lessons are prepared and spiralled to incorporate new topics and the four basic skills. Is all going well? No.

For starters, it is apparent that the present competency based form of education does not factor in affective factors such as self-esteem, self-confidence, and motivation. Not all mature students, it seems, enjoy the instructor simply as a facilitator. And not all of them, so it appears, want the individualized, personalized approach. Many seem to want to learn simply as a sort of fulfilment, an intrinsic desire for more knowledge, not the acquisition of skills, or an external behavioural objective. The can do expectation that comes from competency based assessment seems to wants to override everything else. What I find most disquieting, or ironic, is that I am expected to have learners master a skill, an objectivist, behaviourialist outcome at that, in a learner-centred environment, one that is supposed to be social and democratic. Equally ironic is that in their quest to get positive results, many students tend to ask for more teacher-directed lessons.

It has been demonstrated that the competency based form of assessment, which is now trendy, is useful to validate basic skills in job situations, set achievement levels in trade and vocational schools, create global standardization and licencing benchmarks for trades and industries, and summative assessment in general. Essentially, it helps learners know work-related tasks and problems before using them at work. However, when it is used in the context of older ESL learners, serious questions arise about its validity and effectiveness. I find it very difficult and time consuming.  It is demanding of older adults who don’t see value in it, are too focused on results and, most importantly, an inherent contradiction in the whole context: a behaviourialist, authoritarian outcome expected from a democratic learner–centred context.

What do you think?

Post written by Sridatt Lakhan.  After completing his TESL Instructors’ Course from the Ministry of Citizenship in 1991, Sridatt started as an ESL instructor with the Toronto District School Board.  He has a BA from the University of Guyana, an MA from the University of Windsor, and a BEd (Adult Education) from Brock University.  He has written extensively for a number of publications including peer-reviewed journals.


7 thoughts on “Is Competency Based Assessment Useful for Older Language Learners?”

  1. What a great perspective, thank you for sharing. Working in the field of standardized assessments, it can be very easy to fall into the trap of being a hammer and everything looking like a nail. I will be bringing your perspective forward in our professional development discussions.

    1. Thanks Esther. It’s an issue that has troubled me for some time. I would very much like to know how it goes in your professional development discussions. I will also try to raise it , but judging from past responses to any thing that seems to question the established line, I don’t think I’ll get far.
      Again thanks

  2. Can Do lists were developed in Europe for student self assessment in academic settings for study planning purposes. Somehow ( for convenience?)our CLB Can Do lists morphed into assessment tools and level exit tests. They are poorly worded and sometimes contradictory (even the revised edition). They are as mirages in the desert – great from afar but frustratingly elusive in the real world. Ditto the Canadian Language Benchmarks framework (more than trendy – obligatory) which have always been suspect to me as indicators of what linear language learning progress MUST be. Sez who? For whom? One size fits all? As you point out – NOT!!!
    As someone who has learned/ acquired/ studied to varying degrees of proficiency SEVEN languages (with nary a competency task based test/ assessment among) them I think that what started out as an attempt to see if language learning could be “litmus tested” developed into a cottage industry muddle that many (maybe well intentioned) “professional” curriculum developers and writers are profiting from greatly. Funders and managers assiduously mandate them (” because they were paid for”? ) – the first because of “accountability” – the second as a crutch. The most open advice a colleague gave me when I was first faced with “applying” the “CLB’s” was, “Oh, for goodnes sake Claudie, fudge! Everyone does”.
    Well, I love languages. I have a talent for passing on my love of English to my students. I am a solid classroom teacher with a proven track record of being able to teach students how to acquire the degree of English they need in order to be able to reach THEIR goals.
    You asked what I think. I think the TESL industry in Canada is in a state of crisis and PBLA *is the death knell.
    *I have kept folders with samples of student work IN my classroom for years – extra work to file, yes, but helpful. NOT the prescriptive waste of time claptrap that PBLA is with little boxes to tick! If I hear one more exasperated instructor sigh that they are receiving “PBLA training”(SNORT) I shall throw up! Instructors are not qualified to create VALID field tested assessment tools so the whole premise is flawed AND as you note, inherently contradictory. Well, that’s my just my (humanist) opinion.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful and educated input. Your points are long overdue. A good many people, probably the majority, have been waiting for someone to lay bare the facade of the CLB and PBLA, cottage industries, as you rightly put it. These growth industries are official entities, all funded by taxpayers. Program managers and instructors have to tow the line; they “fudge” because they need the pay.
      Is there an end to this official scam ? Yes, if more people like yourself speak up.
      Again thanks

  3. Looking at the reasonableness of PBLA binders for lower level senior learners, I experience it is a burden, confusion, and pressure for them. If we just consider the organization aspect of PBLA, countless times they surrender and rely on their teacher to sort out their documents and place them at the desired destination in the imposed portfolio. This takes away their intrinsic interest in the learning activity and they become mere marionette trying to follow and do something that is not related to their needs and is not meaningful to them. We must not forget that most of the seniors in low levels have no or low educational background and the complex nature of PBLA documents management system does make much sense to them.

    No doubt, in their learning process, they love to write on a piece of paper and create artifacts that they cherish like anything. These artifacts can be documented in simple learning journal rather than in a portfolio that has twelve sections with twelve dividers. There is a need to develop a different binder/ portfolio for them . One size doesn’t fit all.

    Time to time senior learners express their need to have more social context available to them than academic. Here, are we catering to their needs? No. There is a need to add to the already exciting LINC themes some contexts like –gardening, cooking, photography, and using smart phones etc. And interestingly, we can name that program LINCS (Language instruction to Newcomer Seniors)! This will give a big sigh of relief to both the teacher and the taught and learning will be effective, meaningful and useful for our seniors.

  4. Wow, how timely this post is for ME! I teach a group of 15 seniors whose goals relate to social integration and autonomy in their daily lives. They already have extremely well-developed study skills that are not going to change just because I introduce them to PBLA.

    Eleven of my 15 students are from China. The former hospital CEO who brings each worksheet back to class with every word neatly translated, all new words highlighted in yellow, pink or blue according to a system that only he understands, is not going to deviate from the methods he has adhered to for 40 years.

    Like the students mentioned above, my seniors view PBLA as an imposition, an added stressor. They do not care about their benchmarks in terms of numbers. They do not progress to new levels in the sense of moving on to a different teacher or classroom space. They have been with me for a couple of years and look forward to a couple more.

    Our class is VERY learner-centred; they tell me what they need, as well as how and when they need/want it. I agree that the “one size fits all” approach of PBLA may not prove to be a good fit for my seniors. Any chance all seniors classes are going to get an exemption or modified version of PBLA?

    1. I really appreciate your candid remarks, Kelly. My class is also mostly a group of retired Chinese( seniors), expressing similar interests and expectations as yours.
      There should be a modification of every model we use in our classes composed of seniors, and learners interested in learning for the sake of learning, and at their own pace.
      I hope this concern of ours can catch the attention of those who make our policies.
      Again, thanks for insightful input.
      Sridatt Lakhan

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