Should Taiwan’s Bilingual Teachers Assess English?

Today’s question is about assessing English in Taiwanese bilingual classes.

The teacher asks: Am I supposed to assess my students’ English abilities or just content learning?

This is a very important question because misunderstandings around assessment in English have caused a lot of controversy in Taiwan’s bilingual education.

Broadly speaking, assessment in Taiwan’s bilingual classrooms should focus on content learning, not English.

In an official letter sent by the K-12 Administration of the Ministry of Education to city governments on May 19, 2023, the administration was very explicit that the focus of a bilingual class is on the subject content and that students should not be forced to be assessed in English.

With that in mind, a reasonable interpretation would be that any time a bilingual teacher does an assessment, it should be done in Mandarin Chinese.

That would be the safe approach and would avoid any unintended negative effects on students’ content learning.

 But I don’t necessarily think this would be the best approach.

As I view it, the problem with a blanket statement about assessment is that it ignores the fact that assessment comes in different forms and serves different purposes.

 Although scholars classify assessment in different ways, let’s just work with the most common classification system: formative assessment and summative assessment.

Briefly, the purpose of formative assessment is for the teacher to evaluate the current status of student learning and use that information to decide how to proceed with instruction.

It can happen informally by asking select students questions, or it can be done formally where teachers collect responses from the entire class, for example, through a worksheet.

I generally don’t recommend using formative assessments to calculate grades. Instead, I promote the idea that formative assessments are opportunities for students to practice concepts and for the teacher to gather information about student learning.

With that in mind, I encourage bilingual teachers to use both Mandarin Chinese and English in their formative assessments in the bilingual classroom.

By doing so, teachers can provide valuable meaning-focused opportunities for students to use both languages without impacting grades while at the same time collecting information about students’ bilingual development.

And in fact, that same official document I referenced earlier, emphasized the importance of understanding students’ English abilities before class in order to design appropriate lessons, and I believe formative assessment is perfectly positioned to serve as an ongoing evaluation for these purposes.

However, I want to reemphasize that these formative assessments should come in the form of activities or tasks and should NOT be graded.

I believe grades should be exclusively used in summative assessments. The purpose of summative assessments is to report on learning, and traditionally we do this through grades.

When it comes to summative assessments in Taiwan’s bilingual classrooms, my general advice is that only Mandarin Chinese should be used.

The focus of summative assessment should be solely on the subject content, and performance and grades should not be impacted by language.

Put another way, if I look at a student’s grade on a summative assessment and see a B, that letter grade should solely reflect the student’s knowledge and skills, not their English proficiency.

Ultimately, my answer to the question about using English in assessment depends on what type of assessment you are doing.

If the assessment is summative and a grade is involved, then Mandarin Chinese only. If the assessment is formative and used for learning and teaching without grades, then bilingual teachers should use both Mandarin Chinese and English.