Washback is an important concept in education because it describes the effect that testing has on teaching and learning in the classroom. Washback is generally perceived as being either negative (harmful) or positive (beneficial). Negative washback is said to occur when a test’s content or format is based on a narrow definition of language ability, and constrains the teaching/learning context.
Text by: Anastasia Spyropoulou
If, for example, the skill of writing is tested only by multiple choice items then there is great pressure to practise such items rather than to practise the skill of writing itself. Positive washback is said to result when a testing procedure encourages ‘good’ teaching practice; for example, an oral proficiency test is introduced in the expectation that it will promote the teaching of speaking skills.
Testing can have consequences beyond the classroom. Tests and test results have a significant impact on the career or life chances of individual test takers (e.g. access to educational/employment opportunities). They also impact on educational systems, and on society more widely: for example, test results are used to make decisions about school curriculum planning, immigration policy, or professional registration for doctors and nurses etc.; and the growth of a test may lead publishers and institutions to produce test preparation materials and run test preparation courses.
Language testers have developed various instruments for measuring washback and impact, and evaluating the degree to which they may be considered positive or negative. Interest in this important area for teachers, learners, and other stakeholders grows as tests -especially high stakes ones- are used more widely at national, and international level, and as the consequences of test use -especially the valid and ethical use of test results- come under greater scrutiny in the public domain.
An interesting fact is that teachers and learners modify their behaviour in order to accommodate the requirements of the test. So, if you’re taking a test, you’re probably thinking, ‘Oh, I’d better do some test preparation.’ Positive washback means you carry on learning what you’re supposed to learn and spend some time practicing the skills required in the test. Negative washback occurs when the teacher starts teaching to the test, for example, by practising multiple choice questions, and other test task types in a mechanical way.
The quality of task types included in a test is also an important feature. If we have good tasks, then students can practise these tasks in the classroom and improve learning. But even the best test may not produce good washback. It all depends on teachers’ views of testing. So testing only serves the purpose of assessing students’ proficiency; it doesn’t replace teaching.
In language education, positive washback encourages language learning.
- A test has positive washback when test-preparation activities are the same as the language learning activities we do in class.
- Negative washback, on the other hand, limits students’ learning. Teachers and learners sometimes do activities which are not helpful for learning the language.
There is a strong relationship between negative washback and the test ‘construct’. Basically, a test’s construct is the specific type of student ability which is being tested. There are two main problems with test construct, which can produce negative washback:
1) The construct can be too narrow, so only a small number of specific skills or abilities are tested. This may cause teachers and learners to restrict what they learn.
For example, if speaking is not tested, teachers and learners may choose not to practise speaking in class, even though it would be a useful skill in real-life.
2) Sometimes language skills and abilities are tested, but they are not connected to real-life abilities which we need to learn.
For example, if a speaking test includes a memorised speech, students may spend more time trying to memorise the speech than developing their speaking skills.
- Many more factors influence washback. One important factor is teachers. Teachers’ beliefs are so important that the same test can produce different washback in different teachers.
- Good tests include a range of skills and abilities we want to develop and have a positive washback.
- Sadly, teachers do not have much influence on the quality of the tests their students take because they are usually administered by external bodies, which do not take into consideration teachers' feedback or expertise when they design or revise their tests.