I can’t think of a more important area of ELT than testing: it goes to the heart of what teachers do. Testing has various goals, but its most important one is to measure proficiency. How we measure language proficiency is of supreme importance to everybody working in ELT and testing has, not surprisingly, given rise to a specialised field within the general area of applied linguistics. Bachman and Fulcher are, in my opinion, the scholars who today are doing the best work in testing in EFL/ESL, and I think Glenn Fulcher’s work is particularly worthy of note. I decline to give references, but any search of either scholar on Google will give access to their work.
Current issues in testing include such matter as portfolio assessment, measures of pronunciation, grading according to levels, holistic testing, validity measures, and language policy, just to take a few at random. My MA students are expected to show a knowledge of all these issues and much besides. Any teacher of English as a second or foreign language should be aware of the general considerations which are involved in putting a test together, and any critical teacher should be aware of the various types of bias that skew the tests which are used internationally to assess L2 proficiency. I won’t go into the raft of biases found in the TESL and Cambridge tests here, or into the well-founded criticisms of proficiency used in the CEFR, but let’s be clear that all these tests and levels need careful scrutiny.
So what happened at the IATEFL 2015 conference? How did presenters address these complex issues? Maybe some lowly unsung presenters addressed the issues well, but what we got in the IATEFL / British Council coverage were a presentation by Jeremy Harmer and a debate.
Jeremy Harmer was given the biggest room in the conference to present his 30 minute talk on why teachers should love testing.
First he looks at reasons against testing.
- The Montessori School doesn’t like them because they don’t measure important things like creativity.
- Chomsky says “testing is an anathema”.
- Posts on Facebook say they don’t like testing.
- Testing 4 year olds is weird.
- “Oh, and testing is a snapshot.”
- Some people are good at testing, some aren’t.
- On internet a certain man called Luke said “Give the test a rest” and someone else said “I am more than a score”.
Then he gives the reasons why teachers should love testing
- He got a Grade 1 in playing the tuba because there was a test, and he performed badly in a concert because there wasn’t a test. Testing is thus a powerful motivator.
- Neurosurgeons and pilots must be tested. So we need tests.
- “How else do we know where students are?” A test if it’s well done will tell you how well your students have done.
- Tests are getting better. “The Pearson test of academic English is bloody wonderful. I’m saying that because I believe it, not just because they pay me”. Harmer then gives an example of an item in the Pearson test of Academic English. “What the test designers say is that the algorithms that are built into the software will grade and evaluate what you say more reliably and as as accurately as any human being can. And I have no reason to doubt that because the research behind it is,… is. …er, …er, massive”.
- Tests are not going away so teachers must learn about tests. “Do you know about testing? How would you design a test. Do you know about different test types? We need to get inside tests and understand them”. The problem is that “some countries do wretched tests”. So if you want to change testing you can moan or do something.
And that’s it. If you think I’m not giving a fair account of Harmer’s talk, watch it at the link given above. Allowing that I’ve given a fair summary, then for me the truly perplexing question is why the audience didn’t boo him off the stage. Harmer’s talk is a very poor treatment of a serious issue; it gives no serious consideration of work done in testing and rather than offer a well-reasoned, well-supported argument for testing, it offers hectoring bluster.