Testing in the Teaching-Learning Process. Part One
Consuela Popa, Romania
Consuela Popa is an English teacher. In the past she used to teach English and French. She has taught in state schools, high schools and secondary schools, at all levels, and different profiles. She is interested in linguistic research, cultural studies and writing in English and in the study of other languages: French, Spanish. Christian theology, sociology, psychology are her other fields of interest. She cherishes a lot the opportunity of writing for HLT, since the attitudes and values discovered this way help grow and feed the spirit. As artists, linguists should be aware of the fact that interdisciplinary aspects are unavoidable and that we should touch a variety of fields through our writing. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Testing, teaching, learner types and mixed ability
Assessment purposes and principles
More about the requirements or conditions of good assessment
Training for test types and analyzing test results
In the passages that follow I shall try to outline several related principles and phenomena that come to mind as direct logical links when speaking about testing and evaluation. This includes the previously mentioned, in one of my articles, issues of formative and summative testing and evaluation in general.
Also, connected within the English methodology practice, it is impossible that someone should not enter into other themes, not so visible if we attempt to analyze that from a didacticist (and I dare say narrow-minded!), point of view!
I think that it is obvious that, in the process of teaching-learning-evaluating and putting into practice and reflecting to the public, the results or end products of our teaching and instruction to our students, we become aware of the fact that the manner of teaching and learning influences testing and also the manner of testing influences both teaching and learning. English teaching methodology and practice, as a subject science or field, is about the binding together of many of such aspects. We might start simply from reflections that draw us into multidimensional universe spaces involving human spirit, judgment, psychology, social aspects, teaching, learning, evaluation, as complex and intrinsically linked issues.
I did not intend to make this introduction seem convoluted, although when someone wishes to really point out such thematic coordinates, an introductory approach should be incomparably more ample, it should be broad-and we are bound to do that. In a sketch like manner, though, without the intention of seeming superficial, I have chosen to outline these aspects in this short sequence article, leaving the insight for later stages within my planned research on this subject.
As many of us probably know and as many theorists have argued before, the educational cycle, that includes teaching, learning, and assessment or evaluation is taken altogether in tight connection, comprising teaching, learning, evaluation in both inter-connected and intra-connected manner. We are not to split this further now, whether what should be listed first: learning (further learning and better learning for us as teachers, first, to be honest!), teaching, or initial reflection/placement for students. These are abstract considerations that are meant to have, later on, an extremely important practical use.
Testing, however, or evaluation, formative and summative testing, should not be understood as something that comes at the end of the instructional path. Formative testing, crucially, is not at the “end” of it, but it is an ongoing process. Testing should not be regarded as a mere “statistical”, or empty, numerical, quantifiable “product”, even if some summative, more comprehensible tests, are, yet, “end products”, quantifiers, as well, among other things. Evaluation should come hand in hand with the instructional process/teaching and learning. Another crucial aspect is that evaluation and testing, of all kinds, should be adjusted to the further requirements of the real life, of the life-size job market, of the world of professionals. Many educational theorists, specialists and practitioners alike, lately, have become more and more concerned about whether or not we should think, in these times of educational crisis and failure, about restructuring our frame of thinking by approaching the teaching process (including when it comes to preparing young generations of educators and teachers), from a totally different angle as well, by trying to reconfigure, let us say, the emphasis that is put upon evaluation and assessment and the analyze of these concepts and practices, firsthand. Why should we not think about testing and evaluation first, before getting absorbed into the further steps of the teaching process?
Under the actual context of educational crisis, with failures within exams and all sorts of national or interim underscore rate, in all countries, the placing of the “testing and evaluation” pedagogy section, at the end of a training course or ample coursebook destined for researchers, trainers, teachers, is somewhat anachronic. Nobody is to blame, for when excellent English methodologists have up-dated, even recently- general methodology treaties, not only special “Testing” books, they might not have been aware of day-to day, realistic, and sad, statistics. The accuracy of such statistics, the sincerity and real need for knowing the net value of the students and the real efficiency of instructional programs may be sometimes gravely distorted, denied, affected, because of the fear of some well-known or famous, colleges and schools, of losing their positioning and credit. This happens everywhere, there is no reason of being hypocritical. We all know that.
High taxes or costs phenomena is an issue which, if not solved, will lead to global downfall of education and de-motivation among present generations, both Western and Eastern. The so called “mythical”, good time period in education, compared to what we have today (an involution), made the evaluation section in pedagogy treaties, with a good reason, of course (at that time!), final as position. However, it did not mean that it was “final”, left behind, or less important, in terms of pedagogical importance, a theme. What I wish to say, in short, is that testing and evaluation was always an extremely crucial issue as part of the instructional process. But nowadays, more than ever, we need to place this as a matter of concern, in the first place, as an introductory, statistical and theoretical reflection, before committing ourselves to the noble art of teaching. We should interpret the results of our testing and evaluation processes and reflect upon testing and evaluation, through theory and practice, through analyze and statistics. And upon this basis we can therefore decide how to construct our teaching approaches and theories, concerns, debates, methods, strategies. By analyzing that, and by broadening this field of research, that of testing and evaluation, we are able to judge upon where we are, where we have come from, what were the causes and circumstances of failure and low-achievement in education, and what we can do in order to heal, improve and re-construct or re-configure our teaching and learning system.
With respect to assessment/evaluation, there are also some key issues that should be added: the roles of the teacher(s), the complex roles that educators, who act as instructors, teachers, study guides, but also as verifiers, feed-back providers, evaluators, embrace or fulfill altogether throughout the educational process. Teachers perform multiple roles before, during and after the instruction, and in their hypostasis as evaluators.
Thus, we might start by saying that teachers can appear first as a “placement” mediator, (or initial placement mediator), (facilitator) when classes or groups need to be distributed or placed, according to a certain hierarchy, based upon the level of our students. Schools all over the world organize their own state, or internal placement tests in order to register students and pupils within specialties and forms. There are different methods or versions of initial placement methods, and fellow colleagues from all countries can come up with sometimes varying examples of procedures that are followed within this particular step.
All students are unique, but placing pupils by considering their approximate (presumably), similar potential, proficiency, can affect further instructional programs to an important extent. Again, at this point, I should notice that even in this case, (classes or groups that have been already formed according to the placement criteria through testing), students do have different skills, they react in different ways and they manifest their different skills in different ways, both outwardly or inwardly. They react both in an intrinsic way, as well as “extrinsic” way. Some students are more introvert, others are expansive, or other show different moods and react differently to teaching, learning, debate, tasks, etc.
Temperament (in terms of psychological, broadly known types), can be, or cannot be a hindrance, with respect to class co-operation and collaborative (group-work, pair-work), learning. If we take into account psychology issues such as temperament and learner types, our pedagogy and teaching practice will have strong basis or fundament. Learner based teaching has come to abolish the old and unfortunate ways of the “teacher-centered” class. The teacher centered approach, I dare say, ignores the reality of different learner types and different temperament traits, and while there might be some rigor, discipline or even success and group or class cohesion also in this manner of teaching, as we further away towards our instruction goals, we shall notice that some key aspects will be overlooked. Such aspects are vital to any field, but especially to languages learning, where we need to exploit precisely the unique spirits of our learners, through communication, not the “silent” movie picture, through initiative, freedom and maturity of thought and expression, through the discipline and exercise of expression of critical and analytical skills, through innovation and debate, passion and enthusiasm.
Generally, as language teachers or as teachers of humanities we start from the idea that in those selected (fairly similar) level forms, students are supposed to interact at their very best and this is an achievable reality. But, then, when particular students develop a more original or creative, I should say, way of responding to the class instructional program and, be it because he or she is very good, and wants more freedom and autonomy, be it because he/she simply evolves differently and does not particularly enjoy to depend upon the group, when the group fails to represent him any longer in terms of learner personality, affinity, empathy, in these situations, we come to various issues, one of them leading onto the mixed ability teaching classes/groups.
The mixed ability class issue can reflect a class with different learner types/learning styles or with fairly different levels and skills. Mixed ability is a reality, whether we already know that we teach in mixed ability classes or groups, or whether we discover all these differences and nuances after the placement stage, during learning, as part of the formative process. Even in groups that have been selected according to the criteria of matching their abilities in the best possible way, we may discover (or just notice this as a fact!), that students have different skills, and different ways of manifesting themselves or of making use of these skills. We have to work on enhancing their ability to use, or “promote”, their skills, in the most proficient way. We must educate them not only in terms of resource (scientific), providers, as teachers, but also in terms of prompters for the development of their own agency and learner autonomy.
Therefore, a cognitive, advanced, approach in pedagogy regarding the process of knowing and observing our students better, is more than welcome. Humanistic education or education based on affect and psychology might be one good choice, among all the other approaches and trends in language teaching, methods which can all work well, if practiced rationally and judicially. And we could also set up the theory and practice, of better implementing learner autonomy. We can do this, beginning with mental autonomy, or agency, for our learners, by enhancing their image of self-respect, dignity and confidence in themselves, by educating them with lifelong values and always valid techniques and strategies, in order to take full responsibility for their learning and the general management of their lives.
Teacher roles then, as evaluators, can come out by taking up multiple facets. The teacher can embrace the role of test designer, on a micro-cosmic, let us say, dimension, in internally designed formative tests or tasks, not only as “placement” testers, but also as further on test designers and participators in the complex process of learning, within formative evaluation. They can design diagnostic, progress tests, summative (shorter-term), as well as summative longer term tests, internal or more broadly intended, summative tests, language proficiency tests, etc. Especially if, as previously mentioned, summative testing is done, or intended, with responsibility and care, the notion of summative testing being understood as one which should be formatively valorized, arises naturally and logically.
Goal setting is not only for teachers, since teachers and students are partners in the learning process, but goal setting is also a student, compulsory, prerequisite. When students become aware of the complex coordinates of the magical words “learner autonomy”, they know that key notions or words such as not only goal setting, but also self-management as learners, appear, in the form of a better acquisition of their own way of organizing learning and under the form of a better acquisition of individual skills, learning skills. They will wish to have their own agency or initiative during the course. And why not, they will wish to shape or help the teacher shape, to a great extent, the course design and evolution or manifestation of the activities during the course!
Humanistic teaching, through voices like Mario Rinvolucri, draws attention upon the fact that, while planning is a formal reality in pedagogy and teaching, our learners are unique human beings, and the class or learning groups are spontaneous, so that the idea of planning should at the same time, seem ridiculous, when we adopt the frames and forget about content or core aspects. In a response article to trainer Craig Thaine's advocating planning, Mario Rinvolucri argues:
“The assumption behind your article seems to be that a teacher on Sunday evening
should know what…she will be doing with her class on Friday morning, five lessons on. The assumption fills me with a mixture of amazement and hilarity. How can I possibly, on a Sunday evening, know what will make sense to me and to at least some in my learning group the following Friday morning? …Why do you consciously teach your trainees to elaborate mental structures that ignore their flesh-and blood, here and now, learners?”
(Rinvolucri, The Teacher Trainer Journal, 1996:3)
Although this famous dispute is too fascinating to be approached here among other things, I promise to come with an article on this precise theme as soon as possible, while daring to add to this arising topic, for the moment, some details that might constitute the starting point for further insight into such famous and always valid, debates.
The planning issue was and is considered, anyway, by enough teachers and trainers already, one that essentially has to do moreover with the practice of inexperienced teachers rather than with some compulsory and pragmatically necessary requirement or pre-requisite of teachers with more experience already. It is an acknowledged fact that it (planning) essentially belongs to the bureaucratic or paper area of teacher training and development that was and should be destined only for initial teacher training and (seemingly), control.(like Thaine himself eventually admitted, with respect to the inexperienced teacher’s training issue, in a reparatory reply to Rinvolucri).
As for myself, I entirely share Mario Rinvolucri's view, being also able to relate to my own experience as a teacher from an ex-communist country and to what this planning (bureaucratic) practice, really is.
Hence, on a pragmatic level, I perceive planning as constrictive, and “communist” like, I should say, to the point of canceling the good and noble intentions of teaching languages in a pleasurable and therefore, efficient manner. Within the arts/humanities section, however, teaching languages in a pleasurable and spontaneous way, by acknowledging the fact that learners and learning groups are acting like a living body with reactions that cannot be precisely anticipated/planned, remains, I think, by far more plausible than the formal and literal constraints of conformist or narrow methodology.
Also, students may be led , by their teacher, into the acknowledging of the fact that they must learn, little by little, to assess or appreciate themselves as beneficially as possible and as realistically or accurate as possible. This is supposed to help them, not feed them with false illusions or overestimated appreciations of their level. That is why formative, purely formative, without grades, evaluation, that which is done with a strong instructional purpose, can be seen as a great method for achieving long-term goals, by building “brick upon brick”, with the help of short term formative, or longer term, means of evaluation, the “final” achievements, of learning. I spell “final”, in this way, because the notion of lifelong learning is no longer an abstract or eccentric issue, but an emerging necessity. Learning never ends, and “achievement” should no longer reflect a closed cycle or circle, but lifelong values and attitudes.
We should not only prepare our students for the level they need in order to be equipped for state and paper exams, for jobs, official placements or positions, but also with lifelong, deeply rooted values of lifelong education, learning, evolution, attitudes. Summative, end of cycle or period, assessment or evaluation, with a “dry”, meaning, becomes a touchy element. Such issues are inevitably brought about by the initially mentioned concept of learner autonomy, like lifelong learning, lifelong values and approach. The formative side of the coin of assessment, comes along with the summative notion. As an ongoing process, the way it has been agreed upon to be described by the majority of us, the formative aspect of evaluation, due to its extremely high value of instructional, pure, dimension, leads onto the lifelong learning issue as well. “Formative and summative” becomes an intrinsically linked notion, despite the (seemingly), at the surface, didacticist differentiation, of these terms.
Teaching through the spontaneous creation by the teacher of the tests and tasks during class, might be an exciting and useful adventure. These spontaneously created tests, (not very ample, though), that can range from short snapshots of different issues to longer tasks, can be considered as an example of opportunistic teaching and constitute a goldmine, both for the improvement of the teacher, as well as for student improvement and class dynamics. We can test our class, we can present them interesting questions and tasks, and they can come up with similar tasks and “tests” of their own.
Such testing could be labeled as “opportunistic”, spontaneous testing, but however, there might be professionals who may feel free to interpret or call it slightly different. We might create, together with the class, tasks that are supposed to “test”, or “check” upon some concrete linguistic matters that we have aimed to teach, along with matters that have arisen rather by chance. Some other issues, new ones, can arise, allowing the teacher and the class to “discover” new things that they could learn, that will arrive in future, or to find out about knowledge gaps, or strengths!
We can create tests and tasks for formative feedback or that are somewhere at the fine line between testing and special task giving/solving. The purpose is not to give grades, but to enforce knowledge and to challenge students. This innovatively arising method is natural and it is, most of the times, excellent for students. This formative way of using “tests”, under the form of tasks that check their level, that can be assigned a certain score, or “points”, not for official recording, but for informative purposes, is very motivating and interesting! And once students know that in the grade book there will be no marking, they simply enjoy it, and become extremely positive about learning and solving tasks and about the idea of testing in general!
Samples of true/false sentences, multiple choice, cloze sentences, transformation and paraphrase, vocabulary practice, games, puzzles, translations, etc, could not only be a challenge for the spontaneous development of the class, for the teaching and learning process, for teacher improvement, but also for the learners in order to contribute to their own individual learning as well. Collaborative working can lead onto proposing new questions and exercises, it can generate ideas, fruitful brainstorming. This can be a way for the teacher not only to realize that he can be a test/task designer, but also a way for pupils to realize that they do have a vocation for problem/task solving, which is no longer a fearsome aspect, that generates anxiety. Learners can also be seen the teacher’s partners and co-authors in creating tests and participating in testing. They can test themselves and assess themselves. Learner autonomy appears also, besides the instructional side, with its assessment component. Learner autonomy implies the students` collaboration and self-assessment, through the education that they receive in order to be able to give themselves their own feed-back, as realistically and as accurately as possible, towards their learning and work.
Individual learning is also reflected through all kind of individual work, tasks, individual or group test simulation. Test simulation can indeed, if done in an absolutely practice-like way, “harmless” way, play a very positive role during the instructional process. If we allow spontaneity to flow, then the “language learning miracle” will occur. Individual or group study, discovery, will “take care of themselves”. Observing student personality and pushing students to know and observe their own learning styles with maximum responsibility is not such a time consuming phenomenon. It is a powerful tool for achieving our goals through the acquisition and formation of overall attitudes and values. It is a tool towards creative, humanistic (and humane!), ways of learning and of shaping ourselves!
As teachers and assessors, evaluators, testers, under these “performing” roles, we realize that some methodological terminology words like “placement instruments”, “resource” for our students, “organizers and managers” of their learning and testing circumstances, test requirements mediators, instructors, tutors, feed-back providers are no longer strange to us.
We can give formative feed-back or summative, graded, officially recorded, feed-back. This leads us towards the thought that we are all these and we must be a lot more.
The “feed-back giver” role must be interpreted in numerous ways as well. We are bound to notice that giving feed-back as a teacher, assessing, evaluating, leads us onto a magical word, which is “rapport”.
Rapport, the relationship we establish with our learners, a vital component as well, reflects itself also in the testing or evaluation process. We give feed-back as teachers, under different forms, and this involves establishing some kind of rapport, inevitably. It might just be a continuation of our relationship during the teaching and learning process. As testers, however particular a hypostasis might this be, we are in a continuous relationship and dialogue, rapport, with our students! Even testers that never come across with the subjects they test and assess, are, on an abstract level, reacting to, or interacting with, the “end-products”, with the written productions or task solutions of the test takers. However, communicating to the public the test results, of different exams, and the interpretation and further dissemination of the marking scales, requirements, constitute an important mission and responsibility for schools and educators. It is no easy job to deliver information and news about success or failure to communities and to face concerns about future teaching and learning programs, syllabuses, curricula, in view of the results obtained!
We do need to have a special kind of rapport even “invisible”, but yet, spiritual, rapport, with our learners, when we deliver tests for them, especially when we do not see one another’s faces since we must think that what we design, think, require, ask from them, what we mark, and deliver, will reach spirits and not machines!
And I believe that as assessors/evaluators/testers, we must still remain teachers. We should remember this great quote of Khalil Gibran’s “The Prophet”. The wise teacher
“does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind”.(Khalil Gibran, “The Prophet”). I dare say, still, that the teacher should lead us above, beyond, the thresholds of our minds. The teacher must not repress in people the inner feeling that knowledge has no limits. Knowledge has got, after all, for me as a creationist theory adept, divine prerogatives, and should be infinite.
Creativity and spirit have no boundaries as well, and we should know that we must be allowed, as learners, to have this faith in the truth that we can surpass our limits to knowledge. We must be made aware of the fact, that we are free to discover that knowing our strengths and weaknesses must help us improve and it does not harm us, it only helps us grow.
However, we must set ourselves free from fear and negative feelings. In my opinion, any exam must be worked upon and taken (even if life issues are at stake), first, (especially if you are a believer), as a sacred, magical, challenge. An exam is an opportunity for working on something that is meant to be yet another lesson for us, another challenge for our spirit, “work for work’s sake”.
An exam, a test, a trial, is a “performance”. As teachers, we must orchestrate well this performance. And at the other side, should we not be artisans as testers? Should we be inquisitors, policemen, hunters for mistakes, “chase” agents? Rules are great, but sometimes, rules can be made especially for convicts. For wise people, for humans in general, I think we could use the word “guidance”, better. A test or exam is a challenge, and for a challenge we need motivation. The “angel of motivation” must guide us through the process. If we fail to give positive and continuous feed-back as advocates of life size human values and attitudes, we almost inevitably end up being “prison cell guardians” (no offence meant to the job title whatsoever!), and inquisitors! And we risk talking alone, for our learner in that case will for ever hate institutionalized school and education!
If we are to think about what would constitute the principles of good assessment, than I should mention the following:
Being a component of the complex educational cycle (teaching-learning-assessment), assessment or evaluation should be linked together with teaching and learning, towards the fulfillment of the educational goals. That is, the educational and instructional goals, on the whole, have to be fulfilled to the maximum, whether we speak about long term
goals, lifelong goals, values and attitudes, or while-learning values, shorter term values, or just techniques and training during the instructional process, anything that involves teacher assistance and scope.
The teacher should know that a very important memory that students will have of himself or herself, as a successful image of an educator, will be one that should first be connected to the notion of “rapport” and the more global guiding, ethical and spiritual values, that he or she has managed to inculcate upon students. And this image should also be connected to the motivational drive, to the stir and interest, to the aspiration that, just like soul and mental guiding, should be transmitted to the apprentice and learner.
Students should match the teacher’s image not just with some image that reflects a “technician”, almost machine like, that trains his pupils one thing or another, and that is perceived as somewhat disconnected and aloof from them once he steps out of the classroom. Teachers are certainly not supposed to be perceived as strangers. The teacher should be regarded as somebody that has successfully made them reflect over fundamental principles that are connected to the subject matter being taught. These principles are supposed to be crossing the barrier towards the students` growing up as individuals. The subject matter should be a way for disciplining minds and spirits, for shaping up personalities and characters. The subject matter is a gate towards multidimensional spaces.
As a global transmitter of values, the teacher acts as assessor and feed-back provider. This is not to be understood, first, as a score or grade giver, computer-like, entity, but a figure that provides that necessary positive, pedagogical, realistic feed-back that promotes change.
Certainly, there are very important language proficiency exams (in our case as languages teachers), or external, summative type of exams, all type of Cambridge, IELTS, TOEFL or similar examinations of this kind that are given, (except for the speaking part), with the teacher at the other end never seeing the writer’s face and vice versa, and such summative exam sections are those that rank among what I should call “the non-rapport”, or the non-communicative rapport (invisible rapport), between the student and the assessor.
Also on an abstract level, the fundamental principles of testing should ensure a reliable “end result”, for the student. This “end” result should generate a good analyze
of his strengths and weaknesses, of his gaps and pluses or minuses, of his attitude as a learner and competitor. This reflection can be done by the student together with the school community, his teachers/tutors, parents, all partners involved in the exam cycle. The “lesson” that student and trainer alike have to learn is to be jointly thought and interpreted.
Whether, while bound to respect objective scoring and exam scoring technique and equidistance, the summative exams scorers are able to go beyond some formal and dogmatic constraints and, in the case of written productions for instance, appreciate creativity, originality, or any other real intrinsic value of the test taker, it is a matter of chance, still. Not all teachers are positive in this respect. Some teachers, as scorers, are still sadly closed within what they think a subjective task should look like. For example, compositions or creations that are supposed to voice precisely students` opinions and preferences, tastes, choices, etc, are not well received by some teachers who simply come with their own ideas about, what a composition with a relatively vague title suggestion should sound like, for instance. These teachers will be very negative when they score such compositions, simply because the students` taste and opinions does not reflect their personal ones! I have witnessed such scoring once, and even though the students` English and composition conception were quite good, he/she was scored much under their real level.
As test designers, through the exam items conception and marking scales, we should try to minimize the danger of score unreliability or score discrepancies. The “producers” will always produce something different, unique, and it is in such circumstance that the assessor is playing a special role, that of assessing written productions that have to do with originality, spirit and opinion. I am asking myself and my readers, how can a “sudden death” exam pretend that it properly assesses purely creative, (subjective), performance, in a reliable and non-discriminating way? Ho can we “assess” creativity?
How can we assess creativity, once we have understood what this is, in a humanistic way? Can we “assess” creativity at all? Is this not again, a matter of choice and taste? Of course, we can assess, and we are bound to, academic language, academic proficiency, but the other parameters for creativity become touchy subjects.
This abstract reflection might seem eccentric, and maybe it is, given that in real life, such summative exams that actually check creativity in productive skills sections, are always subject to pragmatic rules of scoring /grading. But such humanistic or test nihilist attitude is not to be seen as a danger towards institutionalized testing. Again, as illuminated minds over there would understand, it is important to recognize what people would call “other opinions versus the mainstream views’, during certain periods of time. If there is such thing in our debate here. As for myself, and I am sure that it is the same way that many others think, I would not see my views above as extremist, and I do not think that there is a “common”, or orthodox view upon such ideas and principles of testing. I simply know that there is, for sure, a strong gap and incompatibility between the true concept of creativity and the idea of “measuring” creativity.
A very important feature that for me, needs to be remarked, is one which is also
controversial: regarding skills, the acquisition and the nurturing/development of linguistic skills, and the different problems that assessment poses with respect to skills. The famous acquisition versus learning theory/principle shows up first, for me, together with the “exposure to language” principle. However, aptitude and in-born gift are unique traits. Aptitude and in-born gift can differ from one person to another. But how can talent be measured? We realize when one person has got more talent than another one. Talent is different from person to person, some pupils are endowed with more linguistic gifts than others, or certain skills are better and are more obvious in some people than in others. Some students might come with a huge in-born potential, while others increase their potential through competitive instruction.
Progress depends upon learning environment, upon the attitudes of teachers, upon the methods and approaches used in a certain country and school, in different environments. Anyway, I dare say that for really passionate language students, “language learning will take care of itself, if there are enough means of language exposure to choose from. These means include authentic language media channels, written materials, possibility for contacting native speakers or other speakers of English, exchange and constant contact with the language world. You can almost forget about the traumatizing and constrictive so called academic, (still), communist like, system in many universities and schools in ex-communist countries. A passionate language learner will immerse into language, by searching for every opportunity, and will learn how to stay away from negative feelings and attitudes in school environments. Mark Twain’s famous observation, about never letting school “affect” our education, is not only a genial, ironic, statement, but it is a sad, always valid, acknowledgment of the fact, that unfortunately, instead of formatively shaping us, schools and evaluation rather deform spirits and intellects!
Good assessment needs more “technical” requirements. Such requirements would be enumerated in the following way: validity, reliability, authenticity, variety, balance within the tested aspects/items/themes, the right volume and weight, good timing, good organizational/management circumstances (including aspects such as place and date, and whether assessment is organized in more sessions/examinations, setting and time between exams, etc). In other terms, we must decide what to test and when to test, how much to assess, what would be the composing items/parts for testing, how much importance we should give to each item and accordingly, how to grade those items or score them as per their placed importance, what are the accompanying testing conditions/place, date, for how long would the testing last, etc. These firstly delineated aspects are by far not the only ones to be fulfilled. Validity and reliability, however, as well as authenticity, come out as fundamental requirements.
arding validity, a test or assessment type is considered valid if it tests what it is supposed to test. In languages, for instance, one should not require a test with questions that demand arguments that would imply the mastery of other fields such as, for instance, complex chemistry, physics, biology or other scientific knowledge. In other words, if we ask our students, to give another example, to make up an essay starting from a key question that would involve their a-priori knowledge of biology or physics, or chemistry for instance (even if some students might still, find themselves fascinated by these specific subject matters), then our demand does not make a valid means of testing. Although there might be students out there, (and languages are very much related to other fields, in a cross-disciplinary way), who might appreciate answering questions that relate to their other passions/queries/fields of interest, a good, valid, language assessment, in our case, should keep away the danger of transforming the exam or requirements into something that would hugely disadvantage students; or would simply constitute a troublesome topics to approach, for all their language skills, because of the specialized knowledge involved. Specialized knowledge of other fields renders the task an inappropriate feature and makes it unanswerable.
Authenticity is another necessary feature in order to obtain a good test. In the case of languages teaching, however, authenticity refers to, for instance, the practical use that further on, the samples in the test or assessment items, are supposed to bear on the real, life-size, dimension, of the learner. The “authenticity” issue is basically the same concept as the one that we know from methodology books like Jeremy Harmer’s well-known “The Practice of English Language Teaching” –the replication of real life interaction as a requirement for successful direct testing. We can set up authentic test types that verify our students` acquisition of skills. These skills are supposed to enable them to manage well in any type of real interaction. Good tests reflect language skills in integrality.
Not to mention that if our language teaching program is aimed at further training for our students in order to become teachers, pedagogues and linguists, we ought to make sure that our testing gives us relevant information regarding methodological aspects of their preparation, writing skills, advanced language mastery, reading and in- depth study abilities. We must make sure that the pedagogical component of their training has been properly assimilated.
If humanistic teaching operates with affect and a “cuddling” effect or feeling with respect to acquisition and learning, then the “assessment” or testing side of the coin should incorporate an anxiety free element. Exam preparation should be perceived as an anxiety free process, pedagogically formative. In the long run, this means that education is placed directly into the hands of the learner, if the learner indeed, learns how to learn and is able to learn from mistakes also! Exam preparation means responsibility from the teacher and students alike, it means agency, learner autonomy and positive feelings.
Students can reach a high level of sincerity in appreciating their own work and results, and self-evaluating is a way of them playing their teacher’s role-they enter a bit, or a bit more, into the world of methodology. This might seem odd for some people, who are accustomed with the classical way of perceiving only the teacher as a potential and reliable source of feed-back, appreciation and analyze of their students` work. It is true that there are quite enough students who could assess their own learning, strategies, skills, or test performance, just as well as a teacher can do. As test designers, teachers face the huge responsibility of creating tests and marking scales that should reflect the real value of their students in a faithful way.
We can definitely train our students for different test types, and the techniques and strategies involved can help them a lot, especially if we make sure that there is enough good wash back effect throughout the period. Notions from other disciplines, like history, magazine cultural topics, very challenging and interesting, can come across reading or listening tasks, while with writing and speaking, opportunities are offered for personalized approach from the candidate.
Through interpretation and analyze, assessment becomes an efficient tool for improving learning and teaching. Teachers and schools in general are able to see how efficient their instructional program has been, how learning was done by students in response to the instruction that they have been exposed to, how well students have achieved the educational objectives and standards, what could be their strengths and weaknesses.
Analyzing the assessment results can be much more complex and important than we could imagine. If one particular exam taken at a more global scale has been characterized by obvious low-achieving rate, proposals for change should become a concern. We should think about changing many things, such as: our approach regarding the methods and strategies used, the syllabuses and curricula that allow for different interpretations and practices to be perpetrated in an unsuccessful way, or even the exam structure in itself.
In western countries, in different states and regions, such changes were not hard to make. In Eastern countries, the situation was different. Given the fact that in certain countries, the test types and exam structure have been subject to change quite often, without prior research, students were simply regarded as some people upon which we experiment testing. In these cases, (Romania included), in which the teaching system has been neglected, allowing for methodological, curricula, syllabus changes would also imply costs for general educational reform, for logistics and resources in schools. It is not possible to support these costs in a politically dictated, corrupted and abusive, so called, educational system.
Assessment is global and integrative in nature, and not sequential and isolated a phenomenon in time and space. And its results, statistically, formally, and formatively interpreted or analyzed are details which cannot be overlooked. Larger scale exams influence generations of students and teachers. Testing has always been intrinsically linked with the methodologies that have been used.
Arnold, J. (1999), Affect in Language Learning. Cambridge University Press
Arnold, J (1998), Towards more humanistic English teaching, ELT Journal 52/3
Canale, M&M, Swain, 1980(a).Theory of Language Assessment. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Canale, M&M, Swain, 1980(b). Theoretical Bases of Communicative Approaches to Second Language Teaching and Testing, Applied Linguistics
Green, T and Hawkey, R 2004 Test Washback and Impact. Modern English Teacher 13/4
Hughes, A 2003 Testing for Language Teachers, 2nd edn Cambridge University Press
Heaton, J.B (1982). Language Testing. Modern English Publications.
Please check the Methodology and Language for Secondary Teachers course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Teaching Advanced Students course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the How the Motivate your Students course at Pilgrims website.