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Baselining for baselining's sake

As English schools continue to obsess over measuring pupil progress, many sticking with the national curriculum levels now abandoned by the government, language departments have a problem in as far as they have nothing very reliable on which to predict the future performance of their students. In maths, science and English pupils arrive at secondary school with a host of data trailing behind them which can be used, despite their unreliability, to help predict how a pupil should progress in the future. There is no previous test of a child's second language learning ability.

Most schools use primary school data and other Y7 test data (e.g. CAT tests) to provide a baseline for future performance. I used to look at this data (CAT data was most useful and detailed) to help me fill in the Excel spreadsheets which would follow a child through their school career. These spreadsheets would feature scores for verbal and non-verbal reasoning, National Curriculum scores, rank order data, school exam results, report grades, effort grades and  traffic light systems produced by formulae which would highlight whether a pupil was on track, ahead of predicted performance or behind.

I confess that I only rarely found it all useful, most often in conversations with individual pupils who seemed quite interested in their data. Although the data was interesting enough, I doubt if many teachers actually used it to shape their teaching of classes and individuals.

BUT, there is no specific benchmarking data for language learners. Many arrive at secondary with little or no knowledge or skill in foreign language. There is certainly nothing which could predict future performance.

From the forums I read it seems that some misguided leadership teams have been asking departments to come up with baseline tests which can be administered very soon after arrival in Y7. (More sensible would be to wait until the end of the year to see how students actually perform in language learning.) One such test which has been doing the rounds in is the Swedish language aptitude test from York University. Here is an extract (courtesy of Grangefield School and the MFL Resources forum):

‘The’ is not a separate word in Swedish but an ending added to the noun. Read through the examples in the tables below and try to fill in the missing words in the spaces opposite the arrows.

a book
en bok
the book
a chair
en stol
the chair
a spoon
en sked
the spoon
a cat
en katt
the cat

a pencil
en penna
the pencil
a lamp
en lampa
the lamp
a picture
en tavla
the picture
a girl
en flicka
the girl

a bridge
en bro
the bridge
a cloud
en sky
the cloud
a shoe
en sko
the shoe
a village
en by
the village

a leg
ett ben
the leg
a glass
ett glas
the glass
a letter
ett brev
the letter
a house
ett hus
the house

a hand
en hand
the hand

a cow
en ko
the cow

a tape
ett band
the tape

a stocking
en strumpa
the stocking

Now, the trouble with this type of test is that it is far too narrow to be predictive of such a complex activity as language learning. This test is based only on the written word. It may reveal a child's ability to read for detail and spot patterns, but there is clearly much more to language learning than this.

In the 1950s John B. Carroll and Stanley Sapon from the USA designed a much more sophisticated test called the MLAT (Modern Language Aptitude Test). They designed it to help the US army find good linguists. After field testing they chose five verbal tasks which, when used together, had a high predictive ability of future language proficiency and grades.

Quoting from Wikipedia:

The design of the MLAT also reflects a major conclusion of Carroll's research, which was that language learning aptitude was not a "general" unitary ability, but rather a composite of at least four relatively independent "specialized" abilities. The four aspects, or "components," of language learning aptitude that Carroll identified were phonetic coding ability, grammatical sensitivity, rote learning ability and inductive language learning ability. 

I find it interesting that three of the above relate strongly, as applied linguists would put it, to "learning" rather than "acqusition". i.e. many applied linguists and teachers would argue that language is acquired at a subsconscious level and that abilities such as "grammatical sensitivity" may aid with accuracy and produce good exam grades in a school context, but may have little bearing on a person's general capacity to pick up a language. Carroll was aware of this, realising that all people have the capacity to acquire a second language. He wrote that his test referred to the  “prediction of how well, relative to other individuals, an individual can learn a foreign language in a given amount of time and under given conditions.” No doubt the MLAT and Carroll's research were also products of their time when grammar-translation still held general sway, audio-lingual training was in vogue, whilst naturalistic and communicative approaches were not.

What could this mean for teachers looking for a baseline assessment in schools?

Well, you could possibly design a complex set of tests along the lines of the MLAT. They could include phonetic discrimination, morphological and syntactic pattern spotting, rote memory and comprehension of the mother tongue. One might even enquire into how young the child was when he or she picked up their first language. These could even help predict what a pupil's expected performance might be in the second language, but they would largely operate at the level of conscious learning, would not include other factors such as motivation, attitudes to foreign-ness, risk taking, general willingness to communicate and so on. One could argue that these other factors have an influence in all subject areas, so should not be included in a test which you wish to be "clean" i.e. purely testing intellectual capacities. Language learning is, however, a particularly threatening and challenging task for young people so it may be unfair not to include a range of factors in the assessment of possible future proficiency.

All in all, I am left thinking that it is not worth the bother trying to come up with a baseline test near the start of Y7. There is other existing data which may be of use (I found it correlated fairly well with future performance) and, in any case, if you want to see how well a child can learn a language, let them have a go and see. Then look at how they might get on in the future.


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