What day is it Today????

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Testing and assessment

Testing and assessment
Richard Frost, British Council, Turkey

I will always remember the horror of receiving my chemistry result when I was thirteen years old. I knew it wasn't going to be high, but to come bottom of the class was very upsetting. It was all made worse by the fact that the chemistry teacher read the results to the whole class, from first to last place. My humiliation was complete. Students can have very negative reactions towards tests and it's no surprise when they too may have had experiences like this.

Why testing doesn't workThere are many arguments against using tests as a form of assessment:
Some students become so nervous that they can't perform and don't give a true account of their knowledge or ability
Other students can do well with last minute cramming despite not having worked throughout the course
Once the test has finished, students can just forget all that they had learned
Students become focused on passing tests rather than learning to improve their language skills.

Reasons for testing
Testing is certainly not the only way to assess students, but there are many good reasons for including a test in your language course.
A test can give the teacher valuable information about where the students are in their learning and can affect what the teacher will cover next. They will help a teacher to decide if her teaching has been effective and help to highlight what needs to be reviewed. Testing can be as much an assessment of the teaching as the learning
Tests can give students a sense of accomplishment as well as information about what they know and what they need to review.
In the 1970's students in an intensive EFL program were taught in an unstructured conversation course. They complained that even though they had a lot of time to practise communicating, they felt as if they hadn't learned anything. Not long afterwards a testing system was introduced and helped to give them a sense of satisfaction that they were accomplishing things. Tests can be extremely motivating and give students a sense of progress. They can highlight areas for students to work on and tell them what has and hasn't been effective in their learning.
Tests can also have a positive effect in that they encourage students to review material covered on the course.
At university I experienced this first hand, I always learned the most before an exam. Tests can encourage students to consolidate and extend their knowledge.
Tests are also a learning opportunity after they have been taken. The feedback after a test can be invaluable in helping a student to understand something she couldn't do during the test. Thus the test is a review in itself.

Making testing more productive
Despite all of these strong arguments for testing, it is very important to bear in mind the negative aspects we looked at first and to try and minimise the effects.
Try to make the test a less intimidating experience by explaining to the students the purpose for the test and stress the positive effects it will have. Many may have very negative feelings left over from previous bad experiences.
Give the students plenty of notice and teach some revision classes beforehand.
Tell the students that you will take into account their work on the course as well as the test result.
Be sensitive when you hand out the results. I usually go through the answers fairly quickly, highlight any specific areas of difficulty and give the students their results on slips of paper.
Emphasise that an individual should compare their results with their own previous scores not with others in the class.

Learning from tests
Finally, it is very important to remember that tests also give teachers valuable information on how to improve the process of evaluation. Questions such as:
"Were the instructions clear?"
"Are the test results consistent with the work that the students have done on the course. Why/why not?"
"Did I manage to create a non-threatening atmosphere?"All of this will help the teacher to improve the evaluative process for next time.

Alternatives to testing
Using only tests as a basis for assessment has obvious drawbacks. They are 'one-off' events that do not necessarily give an entirely fair account of a student's proficiency. As we have already mentioned, some people are more suited to them than others. There are other alternatives that can be used instead of or alongside tests.

Continuous assessment
Teachers give grades for a number of assignments over a period of time. A final grade is decided on a combination of assignments.

A student collects a number of assignments and projects and presents them in a file. The file is then used as a basis for evaluation.

The students evaluate themselves. The criteria must be carefully decided upon beforehand.

Teacher's assessment
The teacher gives an assessment of the learner for work done throughout the course including classroom contributions.

Overall, I think that all the above methods have strengths and limitations and that tests have an important function for both students and teachers. By trying to limit the negative effects of tests we can try to ensure that they are as effective as possible. I don't think that tests should be the only criteria for assessment, but that they are one of many tools that we can use. I feel that choosing a combination of methods of assessment is the fairest and most logical approach.