It is not the first time ELT NEWS focuses on language exams and it won’t be the last. Our educational system relies on tests scores to discriminate strong and weak learners. In addition, the five or so thousand FL schools across the country function as spare parts of a huge exam machine ensuring its maintenance and existence. Personnel recruitment in the state sector also gives competitive advantage to candidates who hold language certificates of any kind and value. A certificate adds points to the list – one or two more points may secure a place in the state sector. It doesn’t matter when the certificate was obtained; it doesn’t matter if the language was practiced and used after the school years. What really matters is the certificate, which is a proof of skills and competences acquired a long time ago but…lost in the course of time.
Tests affect teaching
Tests and examinations have always been used as instruments of social policy and control, with the gate-keeping function of tests often justifying their existence. It is commonplace to say that tests affect teaching. Change the test and you will change teaching.
Ideally testing should be close to language education. Not only as a means by which data can be generated to illuminate issues in language education; not only as an external control of curriculum achievement, or as a motivator of students within classrooms, but also as contributing and furthering language learning.
What do test assess?
Assessing language involves not only the technical skills and knowledge to construct and analyse a test -the psychometric and statistical side to language testing- but it also requires a knowledge of what language is, what it means to ‘know’ a language, and what is involved in learning a language as your mother tongue or as a second or subsequent language, what is required to get somebody to perform using language to the best of their ability.
Assessing language involves continuous research on washback and test consequences from testing institutions. How does washback occur? Why do teachers and students do what they do? Why are tests designed and exploited the way they are and why are they abused and misused? How many exams institutions conduct research on these issues? How many of them communicate research findings to stakeholders? How much information do they provide on their website? What is their motive? Is it to generate income issuing certificates to any participant regardless of their skills and abilities?
ELT NEWS asked some FLS owners to express their views on language exams and the impact they have on teaching and learning. All FLS owners are 2021 ELT Excellence Award winners. They had to choose any four of the following questions.
- Exams discriminate between strong and weak candidates. Taking into account the fact that all FLS claim a 100% success rate, is it safe to assume that there are no weak candidates in Greece?
- Are teachers of English in Greece interested in how a test has been constructed, trialed, pretested etc. or the only factor that is important to them is how ‘easy’ a test is?
- Authenticity is an issue affecting choice of texts for teaching as well as for testing and has been a subject for debate since the late 1970s. Are exam texts authentic or have they been written for the purpose by a test developer or item writer?
- Can it also be argued that a text written for the sole purpose of testing a certain aspect of language may bear little resemblance to language as it is used by native speakers unconcerned with language testing?
- Exam institutions claim that their tests are aligned to the CEFR. However, we see B2, C1 or C2 certificate holders who lack basic skills and competences e.g., they are unable to start and hold a conversation or make mistakes that impede communication. How can we explain this contradiction?
- Can we move away from exam-oriented teaching?
- Speaking and pronunciation is the Achilles heel of Greeks. Is it due to the fact that Speaking is neglected in the language classroom?
- Are examinations a fair tool of testing knowledge?
- After D Class the entire curriculum shifts from learning to exam preparation. Could this be the reason that Greek students may pass a B2 exam and still make fundamental and basic grammatical errors?
- Is C2 Level an illusion? Can a native speaker level be achieved or are we just fooling ourselves and our students?
- Are employers depending upon English language exams to certify employees’ competency?