At certain phases of their learning, students need to be tested on the capacity to use English and on the level at which they master the language. If they want to learn at a certain school and to be integrated into a certain class, at the right level, students might pass a placement test. Such a test may be given under the form of discrete items combined with the interview and even with a piece of writing. The aim of such a test is to reveal what the student knows and does not know. In this way, that student can be integrated into the right class.
At a certain stage during a term, teachers give their students progress tests. The purpose of such tests is to evaluate how students manage to get on with their lessons and how they assimilated these lessons during a week or month.
At the end of the year or term, students should pass an achievement test; some teachers call it the exit test. This test is given when teachers want to see the degree in which students learnt the whole subject matter. The results on these tests may decide whether the student graduated or will repeat the school year. After passing such tests, some students are also given diploma papers. Achievement tests consist of various test types and assess abilities in the four skills and students’ knowledge of both vocabulary and grammar.
A lot of students are given public examinations which are also called proficiency tests; these tests show the level of the student at a certain time; universities and some employers are interested in the measurement of the student’s abilities at a certain moment. Such tests are offered, for example, by the University of Cambridge (U.K) or by the University of Michigan (U.S.).
Excepting placement tests, all types of testing mentioned above are different from continuous assessment. When we talk about continuous assessment, we do not refer to learning events which take place at the end of a certain period. This type of assessment measures the student’s progress as it is taking place and the student’s achievement throughout all the learning time. This assessment can take different forms. A well-known form is represented by the language portofolio which consists of examples of students’ work throughout time. This work is taken into consideration when students’ progress and achievement are evaluated. The language portofolios are often part of the Common European Frame work and contain language passports and language biographies. In language passports, learners show their abilities in the language they speak and in language biographies students describe their progress and experience.
Another form of continuous assessment is continuous recording. Teachers keep a record of the students who speak during the classes, of how often they speak, of how serious students are about their homework and, finally, of how they communicate with their colleagues. Some students do well in achievement and progress tests while others do well in continuous assessment forms. Both forms of testing should be given because learners need to get accustomed to any type of testing.
A test is good when it does the job it is designed to do. A good test must have a positive effect on students and teachers rather than a negative one. Good tests are really good when they are valid; they are good when they do what they propose to do. For example, if a teacher says that his/her test is good at measuring students’ listening ability, he /she needs to be able to prove this. It is necessary that students should be confident that the test will assess their abilities; this means that the test has face validity being reliable and valid.
Good tests also need to have marking reliability. In other words, a test should be easy to mark and the marks themselves should be as similar as possible when two or more different teachers correct that test. That is why, a good test minimises the effect of two or more different individual marking styles.
When a teacher designs a test, they need to take into consideration the practicality of that test. The test isn’t good if it is so long that nobody has got time to solve it. The teacher has to anticipate how long it takes to sit the test and how long it takes to mark it.
Tests should have the backwash/washback effect. This means that the teacher needs to think of the form of a test and then to teach for that test type. The focus is on the techniques for answering the questions from the test rather than on the language students have to learn. Teachers have to introduce learners to the types of test items. The test items should be associated with the activities performed by the teacher and the students in the classroom.
Moreover, tests have a strong effect on students’ motivation. First of all, any student works harder when they know they have to pass an important test. Secondly, students are encouraged when they are successful in tests and demotivated when they fail a test. Hence, teachers’ duty is to ask students to avoid public exams when they are not prepared. It is essential for teachers to take into account the needs of those students who do not do well in tests; this does not mean that tests should be easy, but tests shouldn’t be designed only for those who do very well in them.
Teachers can design tests by writing discrete items or by asking students to involve themselves in integrative language. Discrete-item testing implies testing one thing at a time (testing a word, a degree of comparison, or a verb tense. Integrative testing triggers students’ using a diversity of skills and language to accomplish a task. We also need to distinguish between direct and indirect test items. The direct test item asks the student to do something with the language (write an article, reply to a letter of invitation or participate in a conversation). Direct test items are most of the time integrative. Indirect test items test the knowledge of the language rather than the students’ using it. Indirect test items, for example, focus on word collocations or the right use of modal verbs. To conclude, direct test items are associated with activation while indirect items are associated with study (with the construction of the language).
Teachers can test students’ knowledge of the construction of the language through many indirect test items. Let us take a look at three of them which are the most common. The first indirect test item is represented by multiple-choice questions. Students have to choose from given alternatives. They need to choose either the correct answer or the best answer (when only one variant is the best). Multiple-choice questions are easy to mark and are often used to test listening and reading comprehension. However, training students for multiple-choice questions does not mean that those students become proficient language learners.
The second indirect test items are called fill-in and cloze items. Students are given sentences or paragraphs with gaps and they have to write a word in those gaps. Fill-in (or gap-fill) items are quite easy to write by teachers even though it is fairly difficult for teachers to leave a gap space for which one single word is possible. In other words, there may exist more than one variant for a gap and teachers must be aware of them. The cloze procedure is also worth mentioning. According to this procedure, gaps are introduced in a text at regular intervals (for example, at every sixth word).
Another indirect test items are called transformation items. These items help students to show their knowledge of grammar and vocabulary. Transformation items mean nothing but rephrasing and word building techniques and they are not easy to construct.
Direct test items are also worth mentioning. These items make students use the language in order to do something. They do not test their knowledge about the language system. Teachers test reading and listening through direct test items. Students might be asked to put in order a set of pictures while reading or listening to a story. They might complete a form with a phone message as a listening task or they might fill out a form with a summary as a reading task. As far as writing is concerned, students can write leaflets, transactional letters, narrative and discursive essays based on the information from an accompanying text. In so far as regards speaking, students can discuss about pictures the teacher shows them, about similarities and differences among those pictures; teachers should ask students to role-play various situations such as going to the airport or to the supermarket.
It is important that both direct and indirect test items should contain tasks which students are familiar with and which have been practised in their lessons. In this way, we as teachers are able to motivate students to learn more and more.
1. Brown, H.D., Principles of Language Learning and Teaching, New York, Pearson, 2000.
2. Oxford, R.L., Language learning strategies: What every teacher should know, Boston, Heinle and Heinle, 1990.
3. Scrivener, J., Learning teaching: A guidebook for English language teachers, Malaysia, Macmillan, 2009.