It’s a system meant to help newcomers to Canada learn English. But critics say it prioritizes testing — at students’ expense

After having his education stalled by war, Fahed Diab was thrilled to have a chance to return to school in Canada. But before he could apply to college, the Syrian refugee needed to enrol in adult English classes.

In those classes, the then 21-year-old worked to learn a foreign language from scratch while, more importantly, rebuilding his self-confidence and mingling with other newcomer students like him who were also trying to learn the history, values and cultures of their adopted homeland.

“I wanted to be able to communicate with people and learn how to ask for help, go to a doctor and book an appointment,” said Diab, who resettled in Canada with his family via Lebanon in 2015 under a refugee sponsorship.

“I went to classes and met friends in similar situations as me. I enjoyed interacting with people from different backgrounds and learning about this country. My self-confidence was getting better.”

However, when changes were made to the federal immigration department-funded Language Instruction for Newcomers (LINC) while he was about halfway into his one-year program, Diab, now studying engineering at Lakehead University, said he lost his drive as a result of the frequent in-class assessments required to prove the students’ progress.

“We had two or three tests a week, sometimes for writing and reading, or listening and speaking. We must pass all these tests to move up to the next level,” said the now 27-year-old Hamilton man.

“All the tests distracted me from the learning. I was obsessed with passing the tests rather than learning the language and culture.”

After about a year enrolled in the immigrant English classes, Diab quit and moved to an academic credit program for adults at a school board to finish his Canadian high school diploma as a bridge to the language requirement for post-secondary education.

He could’ve met college admission English requirement if he’d reached LINC level 7, which requires the learner to be able to communicate “comfortably and reasonably fluently” in most common daily situations.

Based on the Canadian Language Benchmarks, LINC goes from level 1 for low beginners to level 8 for high intermediate learners. While most Canadian colleges require minimum scores in standard language tests such as IELTS and TOEFL, they also accept adult immigrant students who have completed at least level 7 in LINC.

Adult immigrant students do drop out of English classes once their language proficiency reaches the level they need to navigate their day-to-day life; for many, it’s just a means to obtain the certificate to meet the bar of the language requirement for citizenship applications. Immigration data shows as many as half of all students discontinue after completing one level.

However, students and instructors say the portfolio-based language assessment or PBLA introduced in 2013 is taking the fun — and class time — out of learning for students such as Diab.

The language assessment system, which has been rolled out incrementally since then, is meant to provide a standardized tool to measure the program’s impact on participants’ language learning and track their progress at each English benchmark.

According to its practice guidelines, PBLA is a “comprehensive, systematic and collaborative approach to language assessment” based on the use of real world language tasks throughout the teaching and learning cycle.

Teachers and participants together are supposed to set learning goals, build a body of work to showcase the student’s language proficiency over the span of a school term and use it to make plans to advance the learner’s journey.

According to the immigration department’s most recent review of its language program, 87,140 or 16 per cent of adult newcomers admitted between 2015 and 2017 enrolled in formal language training. Women accounted for 62 per cent of the enrolment and three quarters of the students were between the ages of 25 and 54.

Students surveyed told researchers they were in classes to improve English for daily life (78 per cent), to help get a job (67 per cent), to better communicate at work (61 per cent), to learn about Canada (58 per cent) and to meet people (53 per cent).

About two-thirds said PBLA was helpful in encouraging them to learn more, that in-class assessments were useful in showing they are learning (64 per cent), and that the frequency of tests was just about right (67 per cent).

Instructors who did not find the assessment approach helpful complained the process took too much preparation (88 per cent) or classroom time (80 per cent), and that learners might not be comfortable with or understand the goal-setting (76 per cent).

“The PBLA may be useful ‘as a learning tool,’ but ‘not as an assessment tool,’” said the 75-page report, released in May. “PBLA is time consuming, and that training for PBLA is in high demand.”

Kelly Morrissey, who has taught English to immigrants and refugees in Toronto since 2010, says the tool looks good on paper but is so labour intensive when applied to a class of 20-plus adult students that it turns into sheer test-oriented learning and assessment rubrics.

PBLA requires students to collect what’s called artifacts — evidence of success in applying vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation in group activities — throughout the term. They need 32 artifacts in writing, reading, listening and speaking based on the instructor’s assessment to move up each ladder. There are eight LINC levels in total.

“Language needs a lot of repetition in different contexts. You need to give the brain as many ways to acquire the language skills as possible. You need to bring in all the senses,” said Morrissey.

“Language is one of the humanities. It’s not like a hard science. You can’t treat language students like laboratory rats.”

Morrissey tailors her curriculum to what her students’ needs are and those needs vary from cohort to cohort.

For a lesson about grocery shopping, she would go to a local store to take pictures of aisle signs, bring empty food packaging to the class and turn the classroom into a supermarket to allow students to do role-playing and learn English in that setting. Sometimes, that would also include a field trip to a store.

While the task-based learning approach that many instructors have already been doing is fantastic, says Morrissey, the paper work involved in PBLA has cut into the time students spend on those activities.

And it doesn’t help that instructors have to develop their own course content outside of the class based on rough PBLA guides. Those hours are unpaid.

“PBLA focuses on test, test, test, test. I had refugees from war-torn areas in my literacy class, experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. I wanted more than anything to protect them from stress of these tests,” said Morrissey. “I think it’s unethical to be asked to do that to them.”

Ethiopian newcomer Ibsa Abdurzak, who was sponsored to come to Canada by a community group in 2017, spent six months in the language program in 2018 before quitting. While the assessment helps students get a sense of their English levels, he said he became hung up with making the grades.

“The best way to learn a language is through practice. But there’s too much assessment and it was too tedious for students,” said the 28-year-old, who had a degree in education back home and now studies business accounting at Mohawk College.

“We don’t like to be judged. It makes people nervous and stressed. It did take away the time to practise English.”

Yuliya Desyatova, a University of Toronto doctoral student, focuses her research on PBLA in adult language training in Canada. She says learners, often self-conscious and afraid to fail, could benefit more from engaging in activities than being assessed.

Yuliya Desyatova, a PhD student whose research focuses on portfolio-based language assessment, says it is a tool to enhance student learning but should not be turned into a testing regime.

“They need the opportunity to interact in the language in a social environment. Many of my students are isolated at home. They don’t have interaction (in English) beyond classroom hours. They have so much responsibility,” said Desyatova, herself a LINC instructor since 2006.

“When this opportunity to interact with classmates and teachers is replaced by you filling out paper after paper after paper in the hope to pass, the interaction is pushed aside.”

While the assessment is supposed to offer a “better and reliable measurement” to gauge a learner’s progress, Desyatova says it’s still an inconsistent instrument because each teacher applies the standards differently, with some more heavy-handed than others — an issue the immigration department’s review recognized.

“A simple solution is to remove the mandatory nature of PBLA and let teachers decide how much and how frequently tests need to be done,” she said. “We don’t need to test our students 32 times to see this student is not learning anything more from my class and needs to move to the next.”

Settlement Assistance and Family Support Services, an immigrant agency in Toronto, provides adult language training to some 400 newcomers a year at three locations from literacy to level 7.

Its executive director Sudip Minhas said PBLA allows students to be the centre of the learning and give them ownership of the process, though she admits that the concept of evaluation scares people.

“The intent of PBLA is to take that anxiety out of testing. If I’m given the ownership of my own learning, the assessment is not about pointing out whether I fail or pass, but rather if this route didn’t help (my learning), can I take a different route?” said Minhas.

“But for all our instructors as well as administrators, we have not been able to translate that into practice because we’ve been conditioned by years of certain structured exams and of assessing people by failing or passing them.”

Although PBLA has been implemented for some years now, she says it takes time for instructors and learners to recondition their thinking about the assessment and apply it correctly.

The big setback was that the teachers were not given enough training and support at the onset, she’s glad to see the immigration department’s review recognizes that instructors can “benefit from many supports” and recommends more adaptable PBLA materials, limiting the amount of unpaid work and extra training.

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung

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