Using Integrated Performance Assessments: Real Language Practice About Important Topics

By Adrienne Matunas

At the small public university where I teach in Vermont, one of my first tasks on the job was to devise exit criteria for the university’s newly established Pathway Program.  At postsecondary institutions in the U.S., Pathway Programs provide developmental English coursework alongside a partial load of regular credit-bearing courses for international students who don’t yet meet English admission standards until the students attain the level of proficiency needed to enroll full-time in a degree program. I needed to create an assessment to gauge my students’ readiness to succeed both with university level coursework in English, and in their lives on campus.

I decided to use the integrated performance assessment, or IPA, as my framework.  IPAs, which were originally developed in the K-12 world language context, feature a performance task for each mode of communication (interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational), all focused on a single topic or theme (Adair-Hauck, Glisan, Koda, Swender, & Sandrock, 2006).  This structure seemed ideal for my university students who needed to comprehend material presented in textbooks and lectures (interpretive), participate in academic and social dialogue with instructors and classmates (interpersonal), and demonstrate their learning through papers and presentations (presentational).  But these three modes of communication map equally nicely to other language learning contexts, such as K-12 (where the academic tasks simply feature grade-level content and interactions), and even adult language programs, where the tasks might focus on career or community applications — deciphering written COVID-19 workplace guidelines for the interpretive task, for instance, or having a conversation with a child’s teacher (interpersonal), or explaining workplace procedures to a new colleague (presentational).

The key to IPAs is that they focus on communicative performance in relation to relevant content — rather than focusing disproportionately on the reduction of language errors, as linguistically focused grammar and vocabulary assessments tend to do.  For example, the IPAs I developed for my Pathway students feature topics of interest to them as college students:  the effects of screen time, the rise of the sharing economy, growth mindset, driverless cars, caffeine, the paradox of choice, etc.  Students take home a short academic article about the given topic, their first job being to read it and use whatever resources will help them to annotate it with definitions of key words, helpful notes in their first language, etc.  They then use those notes to help them answer comprehension questions about the article for the first interpretative task — a way of mirroring the important college-level language skill of independently learning from written materials as preparation for class.  I also include a second interpretive task, in which students listen to a short lecture (often a TED talk) that builds on what they learned from the reading.  For the interpersonal task, they have a short conversation with a professor other than me about things they learned or still have questions about from the reading and lecture.  Those faculty helpers use a rubric to rate the student’s readiness to effectively interact with professors in the U.S.  Finally, for the presentational task, students write an essay (for which they may make full use of all the relevant tools — dictionaries, the Internet, our university’s writing center) to draw conclusions or explain personal applications of the topic they just learned about.

What I like about the IPA format is that it gives my students practice in the academic habits they need to succeed in college.  We do several IPAs throughout the semester prior to the Pathway exit IPA, and it gives my students real practice reading to prepare for lectures, conversing with faculty, and going through the entire academic writing process, from outlining to revision.  I also like the fact that I can apply this familiar structure to any new topic that has relevance for my students.  In K-12, grade level curriculum strands could be the “topics,” so that EL students are spending their time digging into content while practicing and getting feedback on their academic English language skills.  This coming fall, I will certainly feature the Black Lives Matter movement and continued COVID-19 pandemic response as IPA topics, and see it as a great advantage of this assessment form that it allows students to practice engaging in English with topics that are important to them.

As for my growing edge using IPAs, I’d like to look for ways to make the assessment less exclusively English-centered.  As a language educator, I’ve moved towards the goal of multilingualism for my students, not just English acquisition.  I want to see my students as emergent bilinguals, and not only as English learners.  While international university students may not face the same risk that K-12 students do of losing their heritage language(s), I think it’s important for American universities, as well as K-12 schools, to recognize that the monolingual English-speaking student against whom we tend to measure our non-native English speaking students should not, perhaps, be our linguistic standard and goal.  If fluent multilingualism is even more valuable than command of English alone, and if assessments are what drive curricula and learning, how can we tweak the IPA format to better measure students’ multilingual (and multi-dialectical) communicative performance?


Adair-Hauck, B., Glisan, E., Koda, K., Swender, E., & Sandrock, P. (2006). The Integrated Performance Assessment (IPA): Connecting assessment to instruction and learning. Foreign Language Annals, 39, 359–382.