Empty examination room in black and white

“I honestly can’t understand what’s so bad about taking a language test!”

“I honestly can’t understand what’s so bad about taking a language test!”

This remark, uttered in genuine exasperation, was delivered by a member of the governing board (Επιστημονικό Εποπτικό Συμβούλιο) of the University of Ioannina Model & Experimental Schools, where I used to work a while ago. We had been in a long meeting, during which the motion had been tabled to encourage our Year 6 pupils to take a language proficiency examination, and to use our school’s resources to help them prepare for the test.

The idea was, we were told, that pupils would then leave primary school with a “valuable” certificate proving that they had attained the A2-level of the Common European Framework. Plus, they would have gained useful experience in test-taking, which, in the exam-oriented context of Greek education, was a skill of self-evident value. Less obviously, the project would also provide a raison d’ être for the stillborn Level A of National Language Proficiency Certificate (Κρατικό Πιστοποιητικό Γλωσσομάθειας), a language test that had been developed by the Universities of Athens and Thessaloniki a couple of years before, and had failed to attract much commercial interest.

In the meeting, I argued fiercely against the proposal, and managed to block the initiative at that time, but judging from the governor’s exasperated remark, I must have been less successful in explaining why I thought that this was a terrible idea.

Fast forward to 2015

Over time, testing has become a somewhat more prominent part of language teaching, in Greece at least, and I suspect in other settings as well. In my thesis, I noted that for many Greek students, getting a language certificate such as Cambridge FCE is thought to be more important than actually learning the language (p. 152 et seq.). A similar observation is reported in a paper by Jo Angouri, Marina Mattheoudakis and Maria Zigrika, who tell us that:

[a] parent mentioned to one of the authors recently, “I told my daughter I expect you to get (names certificate); you can learn the language later when you need it” (p. 192)

Added to this, there is a widespread public perception that regular universal testing can help to restore some accountability to the Greek education system. In fact, just yesterday, it was suggested to me that the solution to many problems that Greek education faces involves “taking certificates, e.g., for foreign languages at every level (primary school [should confer an] FCE)”

Much as the public’s confidence in language testing has increased, there appears to be growing skepticism about their effects and effectiveness, among some professionals at least. This skepticism is, in part, pragmatic: there is mounting frustration as education professionals realise that emphasis on testing has failed to deliver a betterment in learning, and may in fact be associated with possible compromises in the quality of teaching. In part, it is also associated with the ‘critical turn’ of ELT, i.e., an increased readiness to ask questions about who benefits and who is harmed by our professional choices.

So what is wrong with language testing?

I suppose that this is the point where I would be expected to list my objections to language testing. Rather than do that, however, I will draw on a recent blog post by Richard Smith, in which he summarises his contribution to the ELT Journal debate at this year’s IATEFL convention. Just as a reminder, the motion for the debate was that Language testing does more harm than good, and you can find a great summary in Lizzie Pinard’s blog.

Richard begins by making a useful distinction between classroom-based assessment, which can be valuable to teachers and learners alike, and the large-scale, high-stakes tests that are provided by commercial enterprises or national school systems. Of the latter, he notes that these tend to dominate and constrain teaching. Moreover, they are associated with adverse psychological effects, including even suicides. In addition, they are used as instruments of neoliberal policies, and often result in excluding the weaker and less privileged students from education and the workforce. Quoting Bernard Spolsky (1995: 1), he points out that language testing is not really about ‘helping students learn’, and that examinations are used instead ‘as a method of control and power – as a way to select, to motivate, to punish’.

He also notes that language testing adversely affects education in at least two ways:

First, as UK- or US-based test producers increasingly succeed in selling their tests and accompanying ‘systems’ to education authorities and institutions worldwide, there is a Trojan Horse effect – the utilitarian goal of ‘proficiency’ comes to predominate at the expense of other, less obviously testable but important educational values, for example, intercultural understanding, language learner autonomy and literary appreciation (cf. Paran and Sercu 2010). Secondly, these global tests – however technologically innovative, scientifically based and ‘adaptive’ they may seem to be (Kerr 2014) – are acting increasingly as a conservative brake on attempts to innovate away from native speaker norms in favour of more flexible, dynamic and localized conceptions of language-in-use (Original emphasis).

Richard concludes his remarks with a call for holding the power of English Language testing to account and resisting it – but he acknowledges that it is far from clear what form such resistance might take.

An example of resistance

Going back to that meeting I described at the beginning of the post, I managed to prevent the introduction of the new policy by agreeing to implement it – provided four conditions were met:

  1. No resources would be taken away from the teaching provision. If the board insisted on their idea for exam preparation, they would have to timetable additional hours.
  2. The language test would be selected following a thorough and transparent review of all commercial options. In other words, the examination that the ministry and the board were keen to impose would not be selected by default, unless they waived examination fees.
  3. Student participation would require informed consent from students and their parents; at minimum, I expected a meeting where the benefits and drawbacks of the test would be explained in detail.
  4. Poor performance at the test would entitle students to remedial teaching, and funding would have to be ringfenced for remedial teaching provision.

The governors who were in favour of introducing the examination backed down when confronted with these arguments, suggesting that their ideological commitment to testing was not matched by a commitment to bearing the cost for the test. I should also note that this, and similar, acts of resistance eventually meant that I had to move on from that school, so I would not readily recommend them – although personally, I have no regrets.


Featured Image: ‘Examination’ by Thomas Galvez @ Flickr, CC-BY-2.0

5 thoughts on ““I honestly can’t understand what’s so bad about taking a language test!””

  1. Hi Achilleas

    Great to read your post – thanks for referring to mine – and for giving a positive and concrete example of resistance. I hope it’ll be widely read!

    A couple of typos:

    In the meeting, argued fiercely against the proposal, -> I argued fiercely …

    he points out that language testing is nor really about ‘helping students learn’, and -> not really about

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