FAQs for TOAs

Frequently Asked Questions
Consortium for Assessing Performance Standards
A New Jersey FLAP Grant Project

What are Thematically Organized Assessments?

Thematically Organized Assessments (TOAs) are performance-based assessment tasks that target a certain proficiency level and assess the learner’s ability to communicate across three modes of communication: interpretive (listening or reading); interpersonal (speaking/listening or reading/writing); and presentational (speaking or writing). Thus, each TOA will contain one task for each of the three modes of communication.

Like all performance-based assessments, TOAs measure what the learner can do with the language he has been learning, rather than emphasizing what he knows about it. The TOA concept draws its inspiration from Integrated Performance Assessments (IPAs) that were created by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). (For further information on the Integrated Performance Assessment model see https://my.actfl.org/portal/ItemDetail?iProductCode=IMP-IPA.)

TOAs, characteristic of all good performance-based assessment tasks, are centered around simulations of real-life tasks for several reasons. These types of tasks:

  1. capture student interest due to their relevance to the real world;
  2. ensure, to the student, that he is learning language that “matters;”
  3. engender student commitment to complete the tasks in a worthy manner because students understand that the tasks lead to language functionality in real-life ways.

Therefore, teachers who come into contact with TOAs will see that great attention has been paid to creating tasks that “matter” in developing an ability to use language in daily, real-world ways. Likewise, every effort has been expended to ensure that support materials for the various tasks of the TOAs are themselves authentic documents. Playing on the importance of capturing student interest and commitment, students who participate in TOAs listen to audio texts that native speakers of the language might hear and read passages that would be common to the everyday reading habits of native speakers. While the text is authentic, specific tasks of the TOAs are tailored to the language proficiency target. When students evidence their interpersonal and presentational speaking skills, they simulate functions in real-life that would require that ability.

Thematically Organized Assessments are intended to be used to assess student language ability at benchmark “moments” along the language learning continuum (for example, at the end of elementary, middle or high school) or at the end of units of instruction.

Why assess this way?

Language learning today focuses on teaching learners how to use language to communicate effectively in real world situations. Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century (1999) calls for students to be communicatively competent-to be able to use language for meaningful purposes. In matters of diplomacy, economy and security, the United States needs a citizenry that is communicative in languages in addition to English. And students enroll in language courses because they, too, would like to become effective users of different languages. Foreign language teachers all across the U.S. are striving to rethink, redesign and retool to teach in a way that will deliver those language users.

As foreign language classroom instruction has shifted its focus from an emphasis on knowledge of grammar rules to students being able to use language in meaningful, real world contexts, the emphasis of foreign language assessment has also shifted. For assessment to be authentic-fair to the student-it must measure what students have learned to do and in the manner they learned it. Said another way, if students spend their class time in learning how to “do” foreign language, assessment must measure the same thing.

TOAs provide a way to measure student second language ability that mirrors how and what they learned in the instructional setting.

Why would I use TOAs?

Foreign language teachers might use TOAs for a number of different reasons:

  1. To get acquainted with the concept of performance-based assessment through looking at a number of carefully crafted example tasks;
  2. To gain greater understanding of the characteristics of well-constructed rubrics;
  3. To introduce performance-based assessment into the classroom by using a few of the TOAs
  4. To incorporate TOAs freely into an assessment program for the classroom;
  5. Through the backward design concept (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005), use TOAs as targeted performances at the end of thematic units of instruction.

TOAs may, then, be used for a teacher who wishes to become acquainted with the concept of performance-based assessment all the way up to a teacher proficient in their use and one who is looking for additional, well-developed tasks to incorporate into the classroom experience.

In the K-12 language learning continuum, where would the TOAs be used-elementary, middle or high school?

While the TOAs were actually created with a certain age learner in mind, they are far more characteristic of proficiency levels than chronological ages or even cognitive development. All TOAs are designed to measure performance that would be characteristic of learners who evidence the following proficiency abilities:

  • Novice-Mid
  • Intermediate-Low
  • Pre-Advanced (Intermediate-High)

Since the assessments target a proficiency level rather than a specific age, they can be used throughout the K-12 teaching and learning continuum. For example, elementary school students would most appropriately be assessed using TOAs for the Novice-Mid range of proficiency. And, a 10th grader who had not had significant foreign language learning experience prior to high school would also be appropriately assessed using the Novice-Mid TOAs. Intermediate-Low assessments can be used for middle school students who have completed an elementary school foreign language program and may be in 7th or 8th grade. And, a high school junior or senior who began foreign language studies in high school would be appropriately assessed with the same tasks. Pre-Advanced tasks assume a long, uninterrupted sequence of language learning and would be considered appropriate for high school juniors or seniors who had begun study in elementary school.

While TOAs were, indeed, developed with a learner age-range in mind, because they target a certain proficiency level, they can be easily adapted for learners anywhere along the K-12 school continuum.