May 2012
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Cheryl Ernst, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL, USA

As a single-person ITA program housed in an intensive English program, I never gave program evaluation or student outcomes much consideration. In addition to teaching the ITA class, I always had ESL classes to teach and administrative roles to maintain. Our ITA class was a single class that was offered as a service to the university. We offered this class and participated in initial ITA testing of students and offered a one-day sampler orientation. Over the course of a year, I would spend perhaps 125 hours total on the ITA program.

The idea of program evaluation did not cross my mind. Students would complete an end-of-term evaluation of themselves, the class, and the instructor. But that evaluation did not tell me anything about the program. The class was adaptable to what the students needed (and to some extent wanted) and nothing was written about the course except a syllabus.

When our Center for English as a Second Language (CESL) decided to apply for accreditation, we had to finally take a serious look at our ITA program and decide how it fit into the CESL and Linguistics, where it is housed at Southern Illinois University (SIU). We are a small operation and we receive little funding from the SIU Graduate School. The program was my baby: a rewarding project I worked on in addition to all of my other duties. Though I did work closely with the Center for Graduate Teaching Excellence (also housed in the Graduate School), there was no place for the ITA testing and training other than in a binder in my office, and very few people in the program knew anything about it. When we applied for accreditation by the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation (CEA), that positioning finally changed. With our program review, the ITA portion of CESL now has a home.

SIU has an ITA program primarily because of an Illinois state bill that says that universities must “establish a program to assess the oral English language proficiency of all persons providing classroom instruction . . . , and to ensure that each person who is not orally proficient in the English language attain such proficiency prior to providing any classroom instruction to students” (State of Illinois, Senate Bill 1516, emphasis added). The law, however, includes no guidelines regarding the testing or any program review to ensure effectiveness.

We can see the relevance for testing and training in various documents such as the SIU Graduate Student Handbook and the SIU Graduate Assistants (GA) United contract. The handbook notes that

Every non-native English speaker assigned a graduate assistantship with teaching duties must pass an examination of oral English skill before undertaking classroom duties. A representative of the appointing department and of the Graduate School must participate in the examination. (SIU, 2011, emphasis added)

And from the GA United contract:

A TA for whom English is not the native/first language must obtain a certification of proficiency in oral communication in English before the TA may begin providing teaching/instructional services. . . . The University shall provide a training program for English proficiency. (SIU, 2012, emphasis added)

The GA United contract is the first document to reference training, in addition to testing. Each of these three documents mentions the importance of and need for ITA testing, and the university elects (wisely) to offer training for those who are marginal in their oral language, but there has never been a place for program evaluation. The ITA test is a high-stakes test as are the repercussions of the training that is provided; program evaluation should be inherent.

When CESL decided to undergo CEA accreditation, we researched the benefits of accreditation, which is a means of guaranteeing and improving quality by demonstrating accountability. Eaton (2003) identified four pivotal roles of accreditation:

  • Sustains and enhances the quality of higher education and requires that institutions (or programs) actively seek improvements.
  • Maintains academic values of higher education and allows for diverse and independent programs to meet the needs of a range of students.
  • Is a buffer against the politicizing of higher education and protects programs.
  • Serves public interest and need by providing a means of educating the public.

Specifically, per CEA (2010) accreditation, “The program or institution can gauge its effectiveness against benchmarks set by the profession. Through the on-going annual reporting and reaccreditation process, programs and institutions continue their commitment to higher quality.” At the time of CESL’s accreditation, CEA had 52 standards (starting this year [see CEA, 2012], those 52 standards were rewritten and reorganized into 44 standards). Though most of the 52 standards did not really apply to the SIU ITA program, 12 of the standards did: the mission, faculty, curriculum, student achievement, and program planning, development, and review sections. In summary, we discovered that the ITA program was just an extra class and extra testing; we had no documented curriculum for the class, no formal evaluation, and, most important, no process for regular review.

The first standard CESL had to address was the mission standard. CEA requires programs to have a standard that is written and communicated. CESL had no mission. After long deliberation, CESL formulated a mission statement that includes ITAs on campus (only the ITA portion is included):

The Center for English as a Second Language serves international students enrolled in CESL or in Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIUC), its departments, and the region. Our primary mission is to provide the highest quality English language program and curriculum, delivered by professionals in the field of ESL. We aim to:

  • Provide advanced language training, culture, and pedagogy for international graduate assistants. (CESL Mission Statement, 2009)

As part of the self-study, we had to provide examples of how we gauge our success in meeting our goals. We can document meeting our goals in this standard by

  • Coordinating fall pre-semester orientation and testing
  • Coordinating and participating in ITA testing
  • Observing new ITAs
  • Teaching an ITA workshop
  • Teaching an ITA accent reduction class

The next section of the standards, curriculum, was interesting because we had never written our ITA workshop curriculum. We had a syllabus, but that was all. There are three standards (of four) relevant to our ITA program. The first is that the program has a written curriculum that meets the goals set in the mission. The second is a series of course goals, objectives, and learner outcomes that align with the curriculum. The final standard looks at instructional materials and methodologies and how they support the objectives and goals of the class. This last standard is a challenge because our texts are so dated. Very few new texts for ITA classes have been written in the past 15 years, though within the past three years, two new texts have been published. Overall our core materials date from the 1990s.

There are seven faculty standards, of which three are relevant to our ITA program. The first ensures proper education and training for faculty assignments. In CESL, all faculty have a minimum of a master of arts in TESOL or a related field. The second standard requires experience that is relevant to faculty teaching assignments and a commitment to professional development. I am professionally active, and my replacement coordinator is newly involved in the ITA interest section. The final standard, a requirement of demonstrated English proficiency, is a bit ironic for our interest section. The new ITA coordinator is a nonnative speaker of English and she had to have her English certified, per state law.

Of the four student achievement standards, three apply to our ITA program. These standards relate to placement, progress, and assessment. Thanks to the state bill, we had already developed a process for placing students into our class. Our promotion policy was a bit unnecessary, as we have only one level of the class, but this standard also includes completion of programs, with which we were compliant. The final standard addresses how students are informed of placement, completion of the program, and results of their participation.

The program planning development and review section contains two standards, both of which are relevant to CESL. These two standards state that CESL must have a plan in writing for planning, implementation, and evaluation of the program as well as a review of curriculum and student achievement. CESL now includes ITA testing and training as part of its regular program review.

Using accreditation as a program evaluation may be unusual in ITA circles, but we found it very helpful. The ITA program has a home and a place in our regular review. Our curriculum is now documented and available for regular review. It has a place in the CESL mission and no longer is merely an add-on.


Center for English as a Second Language. (2009). Mission Statement. Retrieved from

Commission on English Language Program Evaluation. (2010). Accreditation overview. Retrieved from

Commission on English Language Program Evaluation. (2012). Standards. Retrieved from

Eaton, J. (2003, May). Value of accreditation: Four pivotal roles. Council for Higher Education Accreditation Letter From the President. Retrieved from

Southern Illinois University. (2011). Graduate student handbook. Retrieved from

Southern Illinois University. (2012). GA United contract. Retrieved from

Cheryl Ernst earned her PhD from Southern Illinois University and her MA-TESOL from Northern Arizona University. Her professional areas of interest include teacher training, working with the international teaching assistant population, and academic English.

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