The perpetual frustration of “language levels”

At work, we’re in the middle of “Curriculum Development Week,” in which we’re supposed to tackle the curriculum problems we’ve noticed over the year and fix them.  This is great, in theory, but if you’re a teacher, you know this is often unsuccessful in practice.

One of the big problems facing our program right now is a lack of assessment standards.  This often makes me laugh, having recently come from a program that was obsessed with assessment, to put it mildly.  One of our teachers has put together a possible solution to our problem: we should create cumulative final exams for each class.  These exams would be worth a significant portion of the grade (she proposes 50%), so students can’t skate by on attendance and participation alone.  Hard workers also have to demonstrate that they have the skills.  Of course, I could write a book on my thoughts about assessment.  Maybe I’ll do that someday 🙂

But my main concern today was the title of my colleague’s presentation: “So you wanna teach to the level (and not to the students).”  Immediately, I recoiled.  Why would that even be a choice?  Of course, we should always want to teach to the students.  The idealistic educator in me doesn’t even understand why this would be a question.

But the practical side of me does understand what she means.  We often get students who enter our language program at one of the lowest levels.  Their English is poor, but eventually, they work their way up to the highest level in our program.  Unfortunately for those of us who teach the higher levels, we’re often stuck with students who are really out of their element (Is that the idiom I want here? I’m trying to say that their language level is much lower than the level of the class.  Geez, sometimes I forget my English being surrounded by non-native speakers all day).

So, what do you do?  There are curriculum objectives to meet, and the university has certain expectations for entering students.  If we lower our standards to meet the students where they are, they’re screwed later when they’re not able to pass the TOEFL or they’re not prepared for university classes.  If we maintain the standards of the class, we risk a large number of students failing, and even more feeling completely unmotivated.

My colleague’s thought is that rigorous assessment will eventually lessen this problem (I think we all know it’s not going away completely).  If we have strict standards for each level, ultimately, this will pay off.  We won’t get as many students advancing into levels far above their actual linguistic ability.  I certainly agree this is a problem, and it’s one we’ve got to tackle sooner, rather than later.

But here’s my worry: in an effort to help future students, are we going to (unintentionally) do wrong by the students we have now?

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