Differentiated Assessment in Second-Language Speaking Classrooms: An Investigation of Student Perceptions

dr Hui-Chuan Liao, National Kaohsiung University of Science and Technology, Taiwan, ID LLCE018-317;     Abstract: Current educational trends reflect the change from homogeneity to multiplicity in student populations. Whereas standardized tests are often used as assessments-of-learning, numerous L2 educators have advocated using differentiation as an assessment-for-learning approach considering students’ distinct aptitudes, learning styles, and academic achievements. Differentiated assessment, guided by the principles of varied tasks, learner choice, and ongoing assessment, is intended to provide students opportunities to demonstrate their skills and thereby enhance their learning motivation and efficacy. However, its potential pitfalls include learner perceived unfairness and lack of validity, which could lead to negative backwash.  


In this study, a set of three-tiered differentiated assessment tasks for L2 speaking classrooms was developed and examined using four research questions: (1) How do learners perceive the assessment regarding its validity, fairness, and backwash? (2) Do the perceptions vary because of group learning orientation (GLO) and proficiency levels? (3) Is there an interaction effect of GLO and language proficiency level on learner perceptions? If so, what is the cause of the interaction? (4) How can the assessment construction be improved?


In the first phase of the study, it was determined that the language tasks would be designed as formative assessment for mixed-ability L2 classes with students ranging from A2 to B2 levels. The assessment was developed using a nonlinear, recursive process of consulting expert opinions and student feedback and making revisions. In the second phase, learner perceptions of the assessment were investigated. Quantitative and qualitative data were collected by administrating questionnaires to 300 university students in Taiwan; 6 participants were interviewed. Descriptive analyses, one-way and two-way analyses of variance, simple effect analyses, and content analysis were conducted. Overall positive perceptions of the assessment validity, fairness, and backwash were observed. Because perceived fairness and the face validity of an assessment produce beneficial backwash, these findings indicate that using differentiation in formative assessments can facilitate language development in a mixed-ability L2 speaking class. Carefully examining the subgroups with distinct learning profiles revealed that the level of GLO and English proficiency affected learner perceptions. The low-proficiency students exhibited particularly positive attitudes, whereas the weak-GLO students exhibited reserved attitudes regarding validity and backwash. The higher-proficiency students with weak GLO also demonstrated reserved attitudes regarding backwash. In sum, differentiated assessment, although different from standardized tests regarding purposes, assessment construction and grading, requires recursive, rigid development processes and careful considerations of numerous factors to ensure validity, maintain fairness, and create positive backwash in learning.


Key Words:          differentiated assessment, classroom assessment, speaking assessment, second-language education



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