A truth that neither children nor their parents can deny is the fact that the beginning of the school year imparts a new rhythm to everyday life. And if the first day of school is marked by the nostalgia of past struggles against one’s own limitations, as well as by the euphoria of new beginnings, the following days quickly bring new emotions to both children and parents. Their adaptation to the rhythm of the school year occurs gradually (at least in theory), but after the first week of school the transition from holiday fun and relaxation to the stress of classes and homework occurs suddenly – the initial tests are those that set the tone of this change.
As a student, I did not have the opportunity to experience such tests. I do not remember any of my teachers having used such tools to wake students up to reality after the long summer holidays. As a teacher, I find myself rather puzzled as to the efficiency and usefulness of these tests. I know that this type of assessment is supposed to give students and teachers a representation of the learning potential but also of any gaps that need to be filled or aspects that require correction or improvement. That is what I tell my students and myself at the beginning of every school year. That is why I take the time to revise what I consider to be basic knowledge of English, have my students take the tests and then make the effort to correct them, although I am aware that the grades students take do not always reflect the reality of their intellectual ability.
There are numerous types of knowledge assessment exercises that English teachers can choose to include in an initial test. No matter which ones they decide to use, they must be aware that every assessment activity has its own limitations and students have diverse abilities and learning styles, so assessment variety is of paramount importance in helping students to demonstrate what they know and can do. When I design initial tests for my students and choose the tasks to be completed by them, I consider both the intended learning outcomes and the learning activities, making sure they are all aligned.
Below are three common assessment activities that students of all levels of proficiency are familiar with, as well as their advantages and disadvantages.
Multiple choice questions (MCQs) are a form of assessment for which students are asked to select one or more of the choices from a list of answers. Multiple choice tests have some advantages which include:
- easy to score;
- increase reliability;
- may lower test anxiety;
- require little instruction and are manageable for beginning learners who can’t produce a lot;
- an effective tool to have a quick check on students’ knowledge;
- objective (in terms of marking);
- can be marked by computer/ web-administered tests;
- useful for self-assessment and feedback to students is fast;
- easy administration with large numbers of students.
Having considered the advantages, let’s consider what could be problematic about multiple choice questions. There are a number of problems in using multiple choice questions, some of which follow:
- they only assess recognition of language;
- limited inferences about language possible;
- inauthentic to real language use;
- typically used to assess recall and there is a danger of testing only low level understanding;
- students may guess the correct answer and, therefore, this type of activity lessens the validity of the results collected;
- MCQs cannot test oral or extensive writing skills.
Fill-in-the-Blank items are often found in assessment of grammar and vocabulary. While they do require students to produce language, which is different from multiple-choice questions, they are rather inauthentic in terms of language use. Some of the advantages to fill-in-the-blank include:
- high reliability;
- easier to write;
- limited guessing opportunities.
Although they may have advantages, there are a number of problems with fill-in-the-blank questions. Some of the disadvantages with these kind of questions are that:
- they are harder to score;
- numerous possible correct answers may exist;
- what is being measured is hard to define;
- students need time to complete them;
- they are not communicative.
Cloze tests. In its purest form, a cloze consists of the deletion of every nth word in a text (somewhere between every fifth or tenth word). Advantages to using cloze tests in English knowledge assessment: because the procedure is random, it avoids test designer failings; because of the randomness of the deleted words, anything may be tested within a single cloze text: grammar, collocation, fixed phrases, reading comprehension… Which makes it, at least on the face of it, the perfect testing instrument. Disadvantages: the score obtained by the student depends on the particular words that have been deleted, rather than on their general knowledge of the language; some items are more difficult to supply than others; in some cases, there may be several possible answers.