Education: Critique of the article “Evaluating Workplace English Programs.” This review is chosen because it deals with an issue that I have observed often in my own working experience: the low quality of assessment that occurs in many workplace learning situations, both at the outset of a program and at its conclusion…
The authors set the context for the article by describing a boom in the provision of workplace English classes which occurred between 1988 and 1994 when the US Department of Education committed some 133 million dollars to such programs with a view to “better the workers’ reading, writing, and communication skills, which would lead to improved worker productivity.” (Ekkens and Winke, 2006, p. 267) The funding ceased, leaving individual companies with the costs of continuing this initiative, and also with the task of ensuring the suitability and the quality of provision for their own specific needs. While larger companies can afford to hire a specialist service provider to deliver and monitor programs, smaller companies are often in some difficulty with this complex task. The article addresses the need to identify practical and efficient ways of judging the progress that workplace learners of English make. One issue which causes difficulty is the proliferation of standardized tests which could be used to evaluate workplace English programs. The authors list five professionally produced and standardized tests, each of which specifies that training in the testing method must be undertaken before the tests are administered. This in turn implies high costs either in training such personnel or in hiring such staff to undertake the work. The focus of these five is national and general, rather than local and specific which raises the issue of whether they are in fact at all suitable for the needs of small and tightly focused companies which may have priorities and conditions quite different from those of the national testing bodies. So far the authors have outlined the context well, and have identified some of the practical difficulties that practitioners in the field encounter. The literature review at the start of the article summarizes the work of Sticht (1999) on the gap between what testing systems test, and what participants in English language courses and their companies actually require in terms of day to day demands of the job. A case is made for more personalized assessment methods such as “portfolios, journals, observations checklists, ans diaries” (Ekkens & Winke, 2006, p. 269) following research with a pedagogic rather than quality control focus (Huerta-Macias, 1995; Grognet, 1996 and 1997; Shohamy, 2001). Although this research shows that there are clear benefits for individual learners, in terms of becoming more aware of and taking responsibility for their own learning progress, and there are some other advantages such as a rise in learner self-esteem, the authors note that these methods take more time to develop, operate and score, and most significant of all for workplace learning providers, they are often not recognized by funding bodies. Critics of these alternative assessment methods maintain that they are too subjective and therefore unreliable as measures of progress or predictors of workplace success (Brantmeier, 2006). The authors cite an interesting article by Peirce, Swain and Hart (1993) but do not take full account of this article’s insights, albeit in a context of Swedish students learning French, into the serious discrepancy that exists between learners’ own assessment when compared with formal tests. The article formulates the research question very ...
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