If You Could Wave a Magic Wand
by Pat Campbell
If you could wave a magic wand, what changes, if any, would you
make to assessment practices in your program? In the spring of
2005, this was one of 42 questions posed to 400 educators who participated
in an online survey about student assessment. This article shines
a spotlight on the changes that respondents indicated they would
like to make with respect to assessment practices. Data analysis
revealed that these changes revolved around two key areas: human
and material resources, and assessment processes and products.
The survey respondents worked in adult literacy and basic education
programs situated across Canada—from Dawson City, Yukon,
to St John’s, Newfoundland, and from as far south as Windsor,
Ontario, to as far north as Grise Fiord on Ellesmere Island in
the Northwest Territories. The number of respondents who worked
in programs delivered by community-based agencies and colleges
was almost equivalent, 44 and 40 per cent respectively. A smaller
percentage worked in a program offered by a school board (11 per
cent) or workplace (five per cent). The programs served a broad
cross-section of students, from beginning readers to students seeking
their grade 12.
If a delivery agency in a given jurisdiction had fewer than 30
programs, all of them were asked to participate in the survey.
In order to ensure a representative sample, 50 per cent of the
programs were randomly sampled whenever a delivery agency in a
given jurisdiction had more than 30 programs.
Although the respondents filled multiple roles as adult educators,
the majority of respondents (64 per cent) reported that they were
program coordinators or directors. Seventy-eight per cent of the
respondents were female, reflecting the gender bias common in the
field. Their ages ranged from 18 to 74, and the highest percentage
of respondents (41 per cent) were in the 45-to-54 age group. Their
hours of paid time per week ranged from less than 10 to more than
40: the largest cohort (43 per cent) worked between 31 and 40 hours.
Fifty-five percent of the respondents had worked in the field
of adult literacy for nine years or more. The respondents were
well educated, with over one half (55 per cent) holding a bachelor
of education degree or diploma, 24 per cent holding a master’s
degree, and one per cent a doctoral degree. Only four per cent
of the respondents did not have a post-secondary certificate, diploma
or degree. Slightly over one-half of the respondents (56 per cent)
had taken university or college credit courses that focused on
According to Merrifield (1998), in order to meet the demands of
accountability, delivery agencies that provide educational services
need the capacity to perform—that is, to achieve the performance
goals and to be able to be accountable through having the resources
to document achievements. The findings from this survey indicated
that many respondents are mandated by funding agencies to conduct
comprehensive, ongoing and exit assessments, yet they do not have
the capacity to fulfill this mandate. In fact, one in three respondents
reported they do not have the time to administer and interpret
assessments and write reports.
One woman commented on the “huge time factor involved in
planning appropriate ongoing and exit assessments.” This,
coupled with the fact that many students leave midway through the
program without notice, makes it difficult to use assessments to
monitor progress. It is also challenging to make assessment a priority
when there are so many competing responsibilities, duties and pressures
that consume and impinge upon an educator’s
time. The following statement from the director of an adult basic
education program in a small rural college represents the multifaceted
roles of many practitioners in all locales:
I feel that my initial assessments are good, but since I am responsible
for every aspect of the program from administration, assessment,
training, tutor training, matching, goal setting, plans, information
and referral etc., I find that my ongoing and exit assessments
are, therefore, sometimes lacking.
While many respondents wanted more release or paid time for existing
staff to administer and interpret assessments, others wanted to
hire one person to conduct initial, ongoing and exit assessments.
The issue of capacity was also cited as a recurring barrier with
respect to implementing performance measurement in a survey that
was conducted by the Ontario Literacy Coalition in 2002.
Some colleges and school districts do have a testing or counselling
centre where one person is assigned to administer intake assessments.
In a few instances, colleges have a person within the adult basic
education department who is responsible for assessment. A few of
the respondents who worked in testing or counselling centres expressed
the need for more consultation with ABE instructors in order to
ensure individualized instruction based on the assessment. On the
other side of the coin, some of the instructors wanted the assessors
in testing or counselling centres to arrange case conferences and
to share test results with faculty in the form of teaching and
learning strategy recommendations. One respondent stated, “there
needs to be more discussion about potential students between the
assessment officer and the instructor and/or chair who does the
interviewing.” This suggests that having one person assigned
to assessment doesn’t always ensure that instructors and
students will receive the information they need to teach and learn.
In addition to having an assessment or counselling centre, post-secondary
institutions also need effective communication channels between
assessors and instructors.
Usually, adult basic education practitioners do not have the qualifications
to diagnose learning disabilities. Consequently, many respondents
want the financial resources to access experts to conduct psycho-educational
assessments, or they want sufficient resources to contract professionals
to determine specific learning requirements and challenges. In
summary, programs need the resources to make referrals when specialized
assessments are required.
The majority of respondents spoke of access to assessment tools
and professional development (PD) in the same breath. While many
respondents use informal assessment tools, others want to use commercial
tools. Choosing appropriate commercial assessment tools can be
a daunting task. First, one needs to know what is available. Second,
one needs the funds to purchase these tools. Following the purchase
of new tools, educators must deal with the next hurdle—learning
to use the instrument. The complexity of the assessment instrument
will dictate the amount of training educators will require in order
to ensure accuracy and reliability during administration,
scoring and interpretation. According to the survey findings, respondents
need the material resources of time and funding to access assessment
tools and professional development.
The respondents expressed a desire for a resource library of assessment
tools or access to a diverse range of materials. One respondent
from a community-based program lamented, “I realize all the
resources that are available but the time to study and implement
them just is not available given the hours the program works on
and the other needs that must be slotted into those hours.” Practitioners
need time to explore and familiarize themselves with other resources.
The respondents want training to gain or enhance their knowledge
about specific assessment tools, to learn about recent studies
on assessment theories and methodology, to receive confirmation
that their assessment practices are adequate, and to ensure that
they “haven’t developed any bad habits or shortcuts.” They
also expressed a desire for networking sessions with their colleagues
to “discuss and share resources pertaining to assessment.” Specifically,
the respondents want to learn about the range of assessment tools
that are “on the market, what they use, how they use them
and when, and what are the best tools to use to determine reading
levels, writing levels and math levels.”
While assessment can be learned through trial and error, assessment
is also a socially constructed practice that needs to be learned
through dialogue and reflection with colleagues. The findings indicate
that the respondents prefer PD activities that allow face-to-face
interaction with individuals and groups. At the aggregate level,
educators selected workshops, in-service and access to resource
people or expertise as their top three PD preferences for learning
about assessment. Accessing resource people or expertise differs
from workshops and in-service in two ways. First, this option allows
for observation and feedback: for example, a resource person could
observe a practitioner administering an assessment and then provide
feedback. One respondent confirmed this by stating that on-site
coaching serves “to validate
the assessor’s proper use of meaningful tools.” Second,
this option allows for an ongoing process rather than a one-shot
event. In fact, the majority (63 per cent) of respondents who chose
accessing resource people as their preference indicated that they
wanted ongoing access to professional development.
Mentoring, although a popular choice in five jurisdictions, appears
to be an under-utilized option, considering that it can occur within
the program, making it more convenient for those with limited time
and budgets for travel and participation. Mentoring is also a practical
pathway for learning about formal and informal approaches to assessment
as it employs observation, responsive feedback and reflection.
Some researchers believe that mentoring is a good choice for PD
because it can help educators acquire a “change orientation
rather than just adopt new techniques” (Smith, Hofer, Gillespie,
Solomon and Rowe, p. 3). Perhaps educators who engage in a mentoring
process might begin to question their assumptions about assessment,
which, in turn, might lead to changes in the ways they practice
Thirty-three per cent reported that they do not have time to administer,
interpret, report and/or follow up assessments. This raises the
question: “What is the point of engaging in professional
development on assessment if one does not have the time to utilize
what he/she has learned?” Professional development is effective
only when practitioners have the time to practice, dialogue and
reflect upon their new knowledge. Simply put, until the issue of
capacity is addressed, professional development on assessment will
not lead to more effective practice. The words of one respondent
sum up the dilemma: “The Ministry expects us to do it [assess],
but never provides enough funding.” Funders need to ensure
that educators have the capacity to respond to what is learned
through professional development.
The assessment Process
Many respondents expressed a desire to administer comprehensive,
in-depth intake assessments with individuals, rather than conducting
group assessments. They wanted to analyze and interpret the assessment
protocols in order to make informed decisions about instruction
and design learning plans tailored to the individual’s needs.
Further, they wanted time to discuss the assessment results with
the students and provide an opportunity for students to ask questions.
The data indicated that time was the primary barrier preventing
people from conducting comprehensive assessments and providing
feedback to the student.
Stages of assessment
Assessment can strike fear into the hearts of students because
tests conjure up negative experiences in the K-to-12 school system.
Yet, intake assessment continues to be the first step in the registration
process for many upgrading programs. Several survey respondents
did not want the initial contact to include assessment because
it can discourage prospective learners, and it “puts up barriers
and resistance.” One woman, who worked in a community-based
program, wrote: “I would allow a longer ‘get-to-know-you’ time
frame before the assessment testing is completed.” Another
respondent who worked in the correctional system wanted “a
process where the inmate would be stabilized before being assessed.” The
practical considerations of postponing assessment, however, are
particularly difficult in colleges dealing with a large intake
of students: in these situations determining placement in an adult
basic education class is a priority in the registration process.
The data clearly indicated that intake assessments were administered
more frequently than were ongoing and exit assessments. Among the
400 respondents, 91 per cent conducted intake assessments, 71 per
cent ongoing, and 47 per cent exit. The instructors wanted the
opportunity to measure progress, particularly through ongoing assessments, “on
an as-needed basis, instead of an as-time-allows basis.” In
order to measure progress in a reliable manner, the respondents
noted that assessment tools need to have parallel forms for pre-
and post-testing. A few respondents noted that a tracking or record-keeping
system would assist in documenting and monitoring progress.
The Assessment Product
The respondents spoke of the qualities they wanted in an assessment
tool. Data analysis revealed four commonly cited qualities: being
useful, user-friendly, current and culturally sensitive.
Many respondents were searching for the “perfect” assessment
tool—a “foolproof instrument with 99.9 per cent accuracy
in results.” According to one respondent,
this tool will “guarantee that my initial placement and individualized
instruction will always be right for the student in question. Regardless
of what assessment tool I use, there is always an element
of hit and miss.” The findings indicate that respondents
want reliable and diagnostic intake tools that determine placement
and inform instruction, thereby optimizing teaching and learning.
Instructors want ongoing assessment tools that reveal how the students
are doing and what to do next. They want assessment instruments
to yield useful data that will “mean something” to
instructors, students and funders.
The respondents emphasized that they wanted a user-friendly assessment
tool—one that was simple to administer, score and interpret.
The need for a simple, easy-to-use tool appears to stem from two
primary factors: time and expertise. For example, many of the instructors
in post-secondary institutions assess students during class time,
making the need for a user-friendly tool a necessity. And, while
80 per cent of the survey respondents held a bachelor’s degree
or higher, 44 per cent had not taken a credit course focusing on
A common request on the respondents’ wish list was for updated
assessment tools relevant to the curriculum and the student population.
The findings show that the most frequently used standardized assessment
tool—the Canadian Adult Achievement Test (CAAT)—was
published in 1986 and has not been revised. One respondent, who
coordinates adult basic education programs for a school district
that uses CAAT, expressed these concerns with older tests:
1. Sometimes they no longer match a curriculum that is relevant
to the students’ needs.
2. Sometimes the teacher modifies the curriculum to match the
3. Students may have access to old copies of the tests (or to
students who have taken it previously), bringing validity into
In addition to these three points, older tests are usually based
on outdated reading theories. CAAT, for example, is based on the
text-based model of reading, rather than on a social constructivist
or new literacies model. In fact, in spite of changes in reading
theories, there has been little change in either the basic content
or the format of standardized assessments since the 1930s.
Bias occurs in testing when items systematically measure differently
for ethnic, gender or age groups. Many of the respondents commented
that the tests they used contained cultural bias, particularly
toward First Nations and English as a second language students.
One respondent noted that “the CAT II has cultural
biases that do not measure First Nations’ traditional knowledge
and generally First Nations students place at a lower level than
necessary with the CAT II.” If educators use assessments
that contain bias toward specific populations, the students’ scores
will probably be deflated and not reflect their true abilities.
Due to the diversity of students attending adult basic education
programs, instructors want to use assessment tools that are “fair” and
without “bias.” The respondents stressed that all tools
need to be geographically and culturally sensitive, with respect
to First Nations populations and visible minority groups who have
taken English as a second language. Many students reside in remote
areas, which means that they experience test items that are geographically
biased. For example, consider a test item that asks questions about
paying parking tickets. Would this be relevant to students who
live in an isolated hamlet in the Territories or rural areas where
parking tickets are non-existent? However, according to Johnston,
bias is always embedded in assessments. Johnston writes that “because
of the cultural nature of literacy, it is not possible to create
an unbiased literacy test; tests always privilege particular forms
of language and experience” (p. 98). Despite
Johnston’s claim, test developers are not off the hook when
it comes to developing culturally sensitive assessment tools. Test
developers have a responsibility to reduce bias in tests by analyzing
item data separately for different populations and then identifying
and discarding items that appear to be biased.
In an ideal world, adult educators would have secure employment
and benefits, along with paid access to professional development
opportunities, consultants and resources. Moreover, they would
be able to network with colleagues and would have opportunities
to share their beliefs and ideas about assessment. However, the
world of adult literacy educators is less than ideal, making it
quite challenging to engage in best practices with respect to student
In an ideal learning environment, assessment tools would be valid
and reliable instruments that reflect current literacy and numeracy
theories and curriculum. Moreover, they would be normed on an adult
population and free of bias. Why do governments mandate certain
tests when they fall short of this set of criteria? How can outdated
assessments accurately portray the student’s levels of proficiency
and be used to inform instruction? The adult literacy community
would benefit from the development of new instruments to assess
the adult student population. Prior to investing in the development
of these tools, governments should establish a national committee
to determine standards and principles for test development.
If funders require programs to assess students to determine measurable
gains, then this requirement must be accompanied by funding to
support capacity. Funders need to invest in the capacity of local
programs to collect, interpret and use data to monitor how well
programs and students are doing and to improve services. Resources
need to be allocated to programs that are commensurate with accountability
expectations. If funders want a highly trained workforce that is
knowledgeable about assessment practices, they need to ensure that
practitioners have the time to practice, dialogue and reflect upon
their new knowledge. Funders need to ensure that educators have
the capacity to respond to what is learned through professional
development. In summary, we need an adult learning system built
upon a strong, sustainable infrastructure.
Pat Campbell as director of the project that
included this survey. The three-year project on assessment practices
was funded by the National Literacy Secretariat and sponsored by
the Centre for Education and Work. Results of the project are included
in Measures of Success: Assessment and Accountability in Adult
Basic Education, now available from Grass Roots Press. For more
information about the project, contact Pat at 780-448-7323.
Campbell, Pat (2006). Student Assessment in Adult Basic Education:
A Canadian Snapshot. Winnipeg, MB: Centre for Education and Work.
Johnston, Peter (1998). The Consequences and the Use of Standardized
Tests. In Sharon Murphy, Patrick Shannon, Peter Johnston and Jane
Hansen (eds.), Fragile Evidence: A Critique of Reading Assessment.
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates pp. 89-101.
Merrifield, Juliet (1998). Contested Ground: Performance
accountability in adult basic education. NCSALL
Reports #1. Cambridge, MA: The National Center for the Study
of Adult Learning and Literacy, Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Ontario Literacy Coalition (2002). Survey on Common Assessment
and Learning Outcomes. Toronto.
Smith, Christine, Judy Hofer, Marilyn Gillespie, Marla Solomon
and Karen Rowe (2003). How Teachers Change: A Study of Professional
Development in Adult Education. NCSALL Reports #25a. Cambridge,
MA: The National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy,
Harvard Graduate School of Education.