Creating items (test questions) for English language assessments is a tricky business, particularly for teens. You need to ensure that the item produces an accurate and valid measurement of the skill you are trying to test while providing the best possible experience for a test taker. In this blog, we’ll look at two important considerations when writing items: context and content. If this whets your appetite, be sure to join me in my Oxford English Assessment Professional Development session where we’ll be exploring in more detail how to write good test items.
Here’s an example of the kind of item you might get in an adult speaking test. But it’s not suitable for teens. Why not?
Some people say that the perks of a job, such as working from home, are more important than the salary. Do you agree or disagree?
As you might have guessed, a 13-year-old may well have some of the linguistic competences required to tackle this question (describing advantages and disadvantages, making comparisons between ideas, or offering their opinion on the topic), but how many teens will have enough experience of work to actually be able to demonstrate these competencies?
So, when it comes to writing items, context is key. Let’s take a look at an alternative question that takes the teen context into consideration.
What are the advantages of homeschooling?
Even for teens who don’t have direct experience of homeschooling, this context is still more accessible to them, meaning they are more able to demonstrate their linguistic competence.
As well as getting the context correct, we also have to get the content correct. Consider this: in our lives, some of us have had landline phones, mobile phones, and smartphones. I bought a Nokia 3210 in 2001, and for the first time ever was able to make phone calls, send messages, and play Snake with one device, all while on the move. When telling my friends about it, I would refer to it as my mobile phone to distinguish it from my landline. And then, much later, I would reference my smartphone to distinguish it from my old phone.
However, for most teenagers, a phone is just a phone, and any talk about non-smart phones will probably just draw blank looks. It might not sound major, but imagine being a teenager in an exam suddenly faced with a phrase that might cause confusion.
As a test provider, our goal is to solve some of the challenges outlined above. Some of these same challenges exist for teachers who write assessments for their students, and we’ll be talking more about these in the Writing tests for teenagers webinar.
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Robin Lee has been working for Oxford University Press for five years and is the product manager for the Oxford Test of English and the Oxford Test of English for Schools. Before joining OUP, he worked as a teacher, teacher trainer, and item writer, mostly in East Asia and Southeast Asia. His interests include data analysis and the use of technology in assessment.