Professor Anthony Green is Director of the Centre for Research in English Language Learning and Assessment at the University of Bedfordshire. This blog accompanies his webinar on Assessment for the Language Classroom.
What’s on the menu?
If there’s one topic in language education that’s guaranteed to get people worked up, it’s assessment. But, in truth, assessments are just tools. Like tools we use for other purposes, problems crop up when we use them to do things they aren’t designed for, when we lack the skills to operate them properly, or when they are poorly made. Knives are great tools for cutting bread, but are not so useful for eating soup. Some people are more skilled than others at using chopsticks, but chopsticks made of tissue paper are of no use to anyone.
“… different kinds of language assessment are right for different uses.”
Just like tools made to help us eat and drink, different kinds of language assessment are right for different uses. All assessments help us to find out what people know or can do with language, but they are designed to tap into different aspects of knowledge at different levels of detail.
Assessment ‘bread and butter’
The best known English language tests are the national examinations taken in many countries at the end of high school and international certificates, like the TOEFL© test, or Cambridge English examinations. For many students, these tests can seem make or break: they may need to pass to get into their chosen university or to get a job offer. Because of their importance, the tests have to be seen to be fair to everyone. Typically, all students answer the same questions within the same time frame, under the same conditions. The material used on the best of these tests takes years to develop. It is edited, approved and tried out on large numbers of students before it makes it into a real test.
‘Make or break’ testing
The importance of these tests also puts pressure on teachers to help their students to succeed. To do well, students need enough ability in English, but they also need to be familiar with the types of question used on the test and other aspects of test taking (such as the time restrictions). Taking two or three well-made practice tests (real tests from previous years, or tests that accurately copy the format and content of the real tests) can help students to build up this familiarity. Practice tests can show how well the students are likely to do on the real test. They don’t generally give teachers much other useful information because they don’t specifically target aspects of the language that students are ready to learn and most need to take in. Overuse of practice tests not only makes for dull and repetitive study, but can also be demotivating and counterproductive.
Home-cooked, cooked to order, or ready-made?
“What’s good for one [exam] purpose is not general good for another.”
When teachers make tests for their classes, they sometimes copy the formats used in the ‘big’ tests, believing that because they are professionally made, they must be good. Sadly, what’s good for one purpose (for example, judging whether or not a student has the English language abilities needed for university study) is not generally good for another (for example, judging whether or not a student has learnt how to use there is and there are to talk about places around town, as taught in Unit 4).
Many EFL text books include end-of-unit revision activities, mid-course progress tests and end-of-course achievement tests. These can be valuable tools for teachers and students to use or adapt to help them to keep track of progress towards course goals. When used well, they provide opportunities to review what has been learnt, additional challenges to stretch successful learners and a means of highlighting areas that need further learning and practice. Research evidence shows that periodic revision and testing helps students to retain what they have learnt and boosts their motivation.
Getting the right skills
Like chefs in the kitchen or diners using chopsticks, teachers and students need to develop skills in using assessments in the classroom. The skills needed for giving big tests (like a sharp eye to spot students cheating) are not the same as those needed for classroom assessment (like uncovering why students gave incorrect answers to a question and deciding what to do about this). Unfortunately, most teacher training doesn’t prepare language teachers very well to make, or (even more importantly) use assessments in the classroom. Improving our understanding of this aspect of our professional practice can help to bring better results and make language learning a more positive experience.
In the webinar, I talk about the different kinds of assessment that teachers and students can use, the purposes we use them for, the qualities we should look for in good assessments and the skills we need to use them more effectively.
Green, A.B. (2014) Exploring Language Assessment and Testing. Abingdon Oxon: Routledge: Introductory Textbooks for Applied Linguistics.