Kohia ngä taikäkä – Seek the heartwood:
Issues of validity in translating NEMP assessment tasks

The introduction of assessment tasks in te reo Mäori has brought new challenges for NEMP. Throughout the task development phase, validity issues are kept to the fore as the question is constantly asked “How well will the results really reflect the skills, knowledge, attitudes or other quality it is intended to assess?” (Flockton, 1999). Translating tasks into te reo Mäori means that each task needs to be re-examined to try and ensure that there is equivalence in the complexity of the language used for the each version of a task. However, language equivalence is not the only issue affecting the validity of the tasks. Examination of the four tasks discussed in this paper has revealed a number of other issues.

A major issue of concern is the level of student proficiency in the language through which the assessments are mediated. Most students learning in the Mäori Immersion setting are second language learners. Therefore, although a translated task may have be equivalent in terms of the language used, the students that are completing that task will not bring equivalent language skills to the text that they are given. It has been estimated it requires 500 hours of engagement to achieve basic conversational proficiency in a new language, each word requiring 20 exposures in 20 different situations, or over 400 experiences for proficiency (Hinton, 2002). Second-language learners, while they may appear to have conversational fluency, are being required to use academic language in an unfamiliar test setting. Thus, while a student may be perfectly capable of processing information to a complex degree, the limits of their developing second language may prevent their expression. Rather than engage in the risk-taking behaviour required to extend the language use, it appears that students tend to curb responses so that they fall within the range of well-known structures.
In order to lessen the reading and writing requirements of the assessment situations, NEMP uses the interview format for some of its tasks. However, this format may disadvantage the second language learner. Unfamiliar words can be easier to decode from a written format than a spoken one, the opportunity to take the time needed to understand the word and to reread as often as required is removed when tasks are presented verbally. In the training of NEMP administrators, attention is given to ensure that they take the role of facilitator – an “interested listener” only, who makes no attempt to teach the student. Although the interviewer may assist the student by re-wording a statement or question, he or she is careful to offer none of the usual collaboration of conversation which develops a shared understanding.

NEMP uses a range of task formats in order to bring the assessment setting in line with common classroom practices. However the pedagogical practices mirrored are those of the Pakeha classroom. Students used to a didactic practice in their classroom, where they receive considerable teacher guidance and support, may not be comfortable with the interview setting, answering open-ended questions, sharing information without being sure it is the right answer, discussing with and, maybe, disagreeing the teacher.

While some of the assessment tasks each year require knowledge-based or recall answers, NEMP also tries to examine higher order thinking skills. Questions that reflect these skills require greater complexity in terms of the constructs of both the question and the responses. When the questioner asks for comparing and contrasting, synthesising or judging, the student may need to move from familiar language structures in order to express their answers. The student may be able to work through the skills and ideas required, but not have the fluency required to fully express them.

The translation of abstract concepts has proved particularly problematic for NEMP. In order to set assessment activities within real-life contexts, tasks in English can begin with the phrase “imagine that . . .”, or ask the student to introduce the element of “fun” to a response. These, and other abstract concepts are culturally located and cannot be readily translated at an equivalent level. Even when language equivalence is obtained for a task, there are times when the context-story of a task becomes more complex on translating.

Another issue for consideration when transferring tasks from an English to a Mäori context is that of the language spoken in the home. While for the minority of students educated in the Mäori Immersion setting the language of home will be Mäori, the majority will experience the overwhelming monolingualism of the media, the community, peers and family. The opportunity to engage in te reo Mäori beyond the school setting is extremely limited. Therefore, formal learning is based in the Mäori language, but much of the informal, incidental learning is occurring in English. This mis-match can mean that the transfer of home experiences into the learning culture is not as straightforward.
There is an underlying assumption when transferring the assessment tasks to Mäori that there is equivalent curriculum coverage in Mäori Immersion settings and the general education settings. However, much of the focus for instruction in Kura Kaupapa Mäori is on the acquisition of language and tikanga. Effort is also made to teach from a traditional perspective and focus on Mäori contexts. Different focus in Mäori Immersion means that we cannot assume a similar coverage of the curriculum areas.

The converse also needs consideration. Traditionally in the Pakeha system, Mäori contexts have been taught in units. This practice and limited teacher knowledge can mean that the richness and diversity of practices is watered down into manageable units. Therefore the study of complex areas of Mäori tikanga can be simplistically presented. Marae protocol, for example, can be taught as a one-off topic, divorced from practical experience, by teachers who are not familiar with the reality. This is at odds with the lived experience of those students located within the culture. When questions set in Mäori context are developed with Pakeha students in mind, they can be asked as if there is a simple answer which can be confusing for Mäori students.

The development of tasks and assessment procedures in NEMP are continually critically examined in order to improve practice. As each task is developed, validity issues are considered. The introduction of assessment in te reo Mäori in 1999 has lead to further scrutiny as the linguistic and cultural contexts of each task are examined to see how they affect student performance. There are a number of variables to be considered that are beyond outside of the control of the NEMP project. The consideration of these external factors needs to inform NEMP practice, and further development and understanding is needed. This paper has outlined some of the ways that NEMP has responded to these issues and acknowledges that the journey to perfecting the practice is far from over. The ongoing challenge remains that of finding the means of best cutting to the heartwood of what our students really know and can do.


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