Assessing Students’ Language Arts Performance: The Experience of Hong Kong Teachers

by Benjamin Li

The Hong Kong Institute of Education (Hong Kong, China)



This article reports findings from an investigation of the English language arts (LA) assessment strategies used in Hong Kong secondary schools, and the extent to which these strategies reflect the principles of performance-based assessment. The summative and formative assessment tasks, together with their criteria, assessment checklist, holistic scoring guide, and student language arts work were examined to capture the reality of language arts assessment and identify what was expected and valued in student performance in language arts. Three case studies also allow a comparison and contrast of the use of performance-based assessment (PBA) in the teaching and learning of LA. It was found that the teacher participants recognised the need to conduct LA assessment in the classroom, but the degree of classroom attention paid to it varied as teachers had only a partial understanding of this new mode of assessment, which hindered the pace of change in assessment reform. There appears to be a gulf between the features of PBA as provided in the LA curriculum and the assessment practices currently espoused by many teachers of English language in Hong Kong. To enable teachers to develop the strategies that cater to students’ capabilities, professional development opportunities focusing on performance-based assessment need to be provided.


Language arts (LA) is a significant initiative in the English curriculum in Hong Kong secondary schools. In Hong Kong, LA refers to a wide possible range of activities mainly to promote creativity and language awareness in learners (Mok et al., 2006). The topic of LA first appeared in the 1983 English Language Syllabus (CDC, 1983), in which drama and creative writing were highlighted as examples of LA activities. Their functions were to increase learners’ confidence to develop and express their own responses to the experiences presented in literary texts. The 1999 English Language Syllabus for Secondary Schools and the latest 2007 English Language Curriculum and Assessment Guide for Secondary 4-6 confined the term LA largely to “the use of literary texts” (CDC, 1999, p.103; CDC, 2007, p.87), such as poems and novels. Teachers were expected to offer opportunities for students to respond to and express their individual and shared understanding of literary texts in synergised, reflective, personal and collective ways (Mok et al., 2006). This implied pedagogical strategies that provided students with opportunities to process, produce and perform LA-based tasks.

A key issue that emerges from the new focus on English LA is how student learning in this area is assessed. The current school reform movement stresses that the educational experience of all students must be improved and that assessment is an essential element in the teaching and learning process (CDC, 2004, 2005 & 2007). If all students are to benefit from reform in assessment, specific attention must be paid to providing access to appropriate means of assessment and curricula. Teachers are expected to design integrated curriculum experiences that enhance the personal and social development of their students, and to engage them in more active learning processes. In addition, they are asked to construct modes of assessment that involve them in a systematic process of gathering and reflecting on evidence to effect improvements to the quality of students’ curriculum experiences. Integrating assessment into the learning-teaching assessment cycle is also reflected in the latest view of assessment in CDC (2005 & 2007). Assessment serves the overall purpose of providing information about learners’ progress and achievements in relation to the learning targets and objectives, thereby helping learners, teachers and parents understand learners’ strengths and weaknesses, and plan for improvement. Morris et al. (1999) in their project on feedback and assessment made a number of recommendations on assessment in Hong Kong. Among them was that assessment practices need to help teachers enhance feedback, work collaboratively and exercise their professional judgement. This study also encouraged teachers to use their professional autonomy and judgement to decide on ways to incorporate these elements into teaching and learning according to the needs and abilities of their students.

Research studies have revealed that student success is related to the supportive, learner-centred classrooms, and to the use of PBA (Ancess & Darling-Hammond, 1994). The literature shows that PBA represents an approach to assessment that is associated with the beliefs underpinning the teaching and learning of English LA. PBA is open-ended and allows students to apply their knowledge. It is performed by the student as a form of self-reflection and self-assessment (Fradd & Lee, 2001). The overriding philosophy of PBA is that teachers should have access to information that can provide ways to improve achievement, demonstrate exactly what a student does or does not understand, relate learning experiences to instruction, and combine assessment with teaching.

Two features of PBA help support the development of mental habits that lead to independent learning (McTighe & Ferrara, 1998; Stiggins, 2001). The first is called “visible criteria”. A fundamental tenet of PBA is the sharing of standards and making the criteria for evaluation visible to students. Teachers share their expectations for student work and performance in as explicit terms as possible, using scoring rubrics, checklists, or other assessment tools and representative samples of student work. The second key element of PBA is feedback to show students how to monitor their own work. PBA evaluates linguistic performance by addressing the students’ underlying language proficiency and learning. Feedback through marking, e.g., written tasks, alongside oral questioning, should encourage students to develop and show understanding of the key features of what they have learnt (Brooks, 2002). To be effective, feedback should stimulate thinking. The assessment of students’ work should be seen less as a competitive and summative judgement and more as a distinctive step in the process of learning.

In short, PBA

  • is open-ended and allows students to apply their knowledge;
  • is done by the students as a form of self-reflection and self-assessment;
  • combines assessment with teaching;
  • has two features – visible criteria and feedback.

However, little is known at present how PBA is carried out in Hong Kong secondary schools. It is also not known to what extent assessment strategies in English LA reflect the principles of PBA. Both are crucial issues that can influence the effectiveness of the current curriculum reform initiative.

In Hong Kong, attempts at reforming teaching, learning and assessment have revealed that assessment has usually been the feature most resistant to reform (Carless, 2005; Morris et al., 2000). This has particularly been the case when attempts to introduce formative assessments (Carless, 2005; Morris et al., 2000; Wong, 2007) or school-based teacher assessments (Yeung, 2005; Yung, 2001) have challenged a traditional emphasis on fairness and objectivity as the main features of the assessment process (Biggs, 1998). Despite a host of benefits that the implementation of formative and school-based assessments can carry (Carless, 2005; Yeung 2005), teachers are worried about their conflicting roles as teachers and examiners at the same time, and about the extent of advice they should give to students without jeopardising the objectivity of their assessment (Yung, 2001). Such worries are likely to have a strong impact on their pedagogical practice, given that many teachers are already stretched to their limits by large class sizes, students’ lack of motivation to learn, and the extra demands brought by the government’s education reform since 2000.

The literature reveals that little research on teachers’ professional development with reference to assessment reform in LA has been performed. This study attempts to bridge this gap by exploring the key issues outlined above and by interpreting the current realities of the assessment strategies used in the Hong Kong secondary schools. A case study focusing on three teachers looks at the purposes, range, nature, focus/criteria, weightings, and feedback channels of the assessment activities for LA in order to investigate the assessment strategies used in Hong Kong secondary schools. To provide a profile of the extent to which these strategies reflect the principles of PBA, this study explores two key features of PBA: criteria and feedback, which support the development of mental habits that lead to independent learning (McTighe & Ferrara, 1998; Stiggins, 2005). The study of the three cases allows a comparison and contrast of the use, if any, of PBA as an integral and coherent component within the teaching, learning and assessment cycle.

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Ancess, J. & Darling-Hammond, L. (1994). Authentic teaching, learning and assessment with new English learners at International High School: A series on authentic assessment and accountability. New York: Columbia University, Teachers College, National Centre for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching.

Biggs, J. (1998). The assessment scene in Hong Kong. In P. Stimpson & P. Morris (Eds.), Curriculum and assessment for Hong Kong: Two components, one system. Hong Kong: Open University of Hong Kong.

Brooks, V. (2002). Assessment in secondary schools: The new teachers’ guide to monitoring assessment, record reporting and accountability. Buckingham: Open University Press.



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