21 comments on “Testophile or testophobe?

  1. Teachers should beware of excessive testing. As a farmer remarked, “You don’t fatten a pig by weighing it every week.” The time devoted to tests is useful for teachers but of little use to learners. Far too many teachers give tests for administrative reasons. Tests generate a series of numbers which are just recorded in the grade book. Test results should lead to some action. Without action, the test time is wasted. Of course it is important to monitor the learners’ progress, but tests should lead to some kind of remedial instruction.
    It is very rare that a test reveals a learning problem that the teacher has not previously observed. Tests may be used to confirm the teacher’s observations but they have little value beyond this confirmation. If a teacher is surprised by a learner’s score in a test, either the learner has cheated or the test is wrong. In both cases, the results are unreliable and should not be recorded.
    Although I have written many tests, I am very suspicious about their value. I think that teacher assessment is much more reliable.

    • Very important point made there about remedial action. The normal practice appears to be that the teacher becomes aware when marking a test that there are areas where students clearly need to do more work but then finds that they do not have time to provide that remedial help because …. they have to get students ready for the next text!
      All very self-defeating.

    • Thanks Nick, for your comments. If I understand you correctly (and I agree with this point) tests – even if they are not designed like that – should be formative, have a formative function, not summative.

      I guess my question is things like how do you decide what level a students goes to? How do you decide whether they should get a school certificate of some kind? Our education secretary (in the UK I mean) wants more test and less continuous assessment. He’s got a point? (My heart certainly tells me not to agree with him) In a countrywide system I mean.

      Or has he?



  2. Hi Jeremy,

    What a thought-provoking post! at least for me… So many issues to cover. I am one of those teachers very undecided about the value and role of testing in the educational system. I’m not even going to try to debate the issue over regular education. I’ll focus on ELT instead.

    Point 1 – Should we be testing the process to the product? I reckon it really depends on the learners’ needs. Does the learner aim at getting a proficiency certificate or getting into a university? Prepare them for tests and assess them on how well they do in ‘mock’ tests, giving feedback on what needs to be improved.

    If the learner’s objective is to communicate effectively, alternative assessment (such as continuous assessment and portfolios) do the job best, I think. Because then the teacher can tailor the assessment to ‘communicative product’ instead of accuracy, idioms or things of the sort. Maybe activities where the student if given a situation that they’re likely to face in real life and see what they’d say? (In this case the need of fluent teachers who are Eire native or can put themselves in a native speaker’s shoes is necessary IMHO)

    Point 2 – Schools and educational systems need an objective way of assessing students’ progress. Is there a better alternative than traditional testing?

    Hmmmm… My gut reaction is to say “yes!” But I know the implications only too well. In my school we tried to assess wi alternative, continuous assessment for years and we struggled. We struggled with parents who didn’t believe in it, the fact that students didn’t do it continuously (but more likely at on e, the day before the deadline), the subjectivity of teachers…

    Even though I believe in alternative and continuous assessment (and formative assessment rather than summative), the students and society where I work are not ready, don’t have the maturity for it. In that sense I’m glad my school has gone back to traditional testing (as a complement to the continuous one, which stays strong!)

    Bottom line? Assessment is ideally tailor-made. It depends on the objective, the student, the family, the teacher… Too many variables. Thus traditional testing ends up being a popular choice, because it’s easier and easier to justify.

    • I think Ceci’s reply is extremely well-considered and balanced. The importance of third party stakeholders which she mentions, namely parents, or others such as (potential) employers, university application panels etc is rightly or wrongly inextricably linked to what we often perceive to be the language outcomes of a class. Then again, this isn’t always true. There are some learners who see the process of learning to be more relevant to them than the product as defined by a test – I certainly do when I’m learning Chinese. But for many, this may be a luxury that others cannot afford in either pedagogical or financial terms. And I’m grateful to be reminded by Jeremy about the process/product distinction, an idea which has been around for many years, but which is just as relevant in this discussion as it was in the less febrile atmosphere of the 1980s.

      • Hello Simon,

        yes, you are absolutely right, I think, too pick up on the stakeholder issue that Ceci raised above. It’s difficult for any individual educational visionary (if being against testing is visionary) to fight against the huge weight of a whole industry (I use the term advisedly) and/or the expectations of society. And if our government and teaching profession (in the UK I mean) argue about it constantly, we are unlikely to solve it here!

        Part of the solution, of course, lies in designing better tests – something that has been happening in recent years. But we do also need some kind of mind shift perhaps, and about that I am sunk. Luke Meddings’ blog post is passionate about the naked interests of systems vs the more idealistic vision of teachers and I can’t see a way out of that dilemma in any large system…

        Help me out!


    • Thank you for your comments Ceci. I think you are saying that we have to match assessment tools to the situations we are in.

      It is certainly true that some modern test are far more task-oriented than tests were when I started in this profession. And that’s a good thing. But do the discrete-item language-baased items still have a place? Well most people must think they do otherwise the big testing outfits would be out of business.

      And most schools have to reflect the societies they live in. So unless we can persuade the people around us what we want it seems like we are doomed?!!


      • Hi Jeremy,

        You’re right. One of the things I said was that you the assessment tool choice depends on the situation and purpose of the assessment. But I agree with you that most tests we have available today are still discrete-item language-based. That is, in my humble opinion, a result of the big testing institutes, which prefer to keep them that way than to go through all the work needed to make them more task-based. Besides, task-oriented tests would be more specific, which would mean they (the institutes) would either have a smaller number of test-takers for their tests or they’d need a wider variety of tests (more time, work and money involved) tailored to suit the many different specific needs. So unless there’s greater pressure from the people who use these tests to select people (be it for an academic course or a job) or the people who take e tests themselves (more of the first kind I reckon), I can see little change in the future.

        So yes, unless we can persuade the people around us, we are doomed. At least for a while.

      • Hi Ceci,

        yes, doomed! Armageddon!

        There’s this unholy alliance of money, politics, publicity and economy of scale etc…

        And if you tie that in with the (apparent) face validity of discrete items tests, then, ‘our’ biggest task to to change people’s perception of what face validity looks like!


  3. Hi Jeremy

    Probably somewhere in the middle!

    I disagree with external exams for primary aged children, much preferring the IB primary years programme rationale… indeed the IB as I understand it only examines at 18….summative assessment is made along the line, and as long as the quality of this is monitored, seems to be a good way of testing without the test becoming the be-all and end-all of the work that the children do.

    We do need bench marks, so that students know where they are, but not too often, and not too early in a school career… certainly the idea of bringing back SATS would not get my vote!

    • Interesting discussion in my multinational context testing is viewed as part of our quality control and individual progress evaluation, providing tangible evidence of learning having taken place. Most adults who we teach, especially those who are are instrumentally motivated , seem to enjoy the challenge and get a boost out of receiving the results. Certain personality types function better under pressure and preparing for tests is not totally redundant, in that it provides training in retention and retrieval of information, provides an opportunity to reflect and consolidate what may have been learnt only superficially and( if it is the test is well-designed) should reflect and reinforce the objectives of the course.
      However, the resource should be used wisely and I prefer using a performance or song with my young learners to demonstrate to the stake-holders that learning has taken place. The other issue is the rise of massive open online courses (MOOCS) that are breaking down barriers to learning like entry tests, qualifications and the whole concept of assessment is being flipped and replaced by peer feedback and self-evaluation with no certificate at the end. Judging another individual will always involve a power relationship and if, in the future, learning becomes a more democratic and autonomous experience, the logical extension is that learners will devise their own assessment methods.

      • Hello Karen,

        thanks for commenting. Sorry it has taken me to reply.

        Challenge vs democracy. Measuring vs doing.

        I hope you are right that being able to perform – watching people perform in language – and peer review etc will replace some of the external measures we use. But but but…..exams do (as you suggest) motivate some.

        Over here in the UK we have an education secretary (right wing politician) who wants more emphasis on final ‘sudden death’ tests. But surely, in a multi-student world, a combination of continual, performance-based, and final summative testing (if you must do that) would be the best combination?


    • Hi Yvonne,

      I am so sorry it’s taken me a century to reply to your comments. Time of the year etc. Thanks so much for coming along.

      Yes, it’s a problem isn’t it. Benchmarks are good to have around. To kind of find out how things are going on compared to some kind of standard. But formative makes so much more sense – in educational terms- than summative. SATS might be good benchmarks if they weren’t used to grade kids and schools? Maybe it’s that kind of ‘summativeness’ + public grading that makes it all wrong???


    • I blame the much misused CEFR and ALTE. Quantifying a level has been extended to quantifying progress , so that after an 80 hour general English course a learner can be expected to jump one level. This gets even worse on short courses where progress is described in terms of ,15 on the ALTE scale. none really knows what it means.

      • Hi Karen,

        levels, levels. We always criticised (have always criticised?) levels like beginner, intermediate, advanced etc because they were so imprecise. But maybe, just maybe, they weren’t so bad. The more exact and precise you make your levels, the more you start to believe that (language) learning is infinitely measurable – and that’s the real problem, perhaps?


      • The accountants stormed the educational citadel some time ago. And we let them get away with it.

        Education has become a means to an end, an instrument. If it isn’t of use, then it’s useless. It’s all about making yourself employable.

        The skills (instruments) that we acquire need to be quantified in such a way that the market can use those quantifications when making decisions about employablity in a global market (hence the endless reference to INTERNATIONAL RECOGNITION every time Cambridge comes up with another in an endless stream of potential money spinners: we await: EFG – English for Fish Gutters).

        Everywhere we see a demand to quantify learning, with numbers, letters. Endless testing results with the consequent crackdown on ‘off-target’ experimentation, tangential reading or exploration.

        There is no uglier word in the English language than ‘Competences’.

    • Hello scoundrel!

      Yes, of course that’s it. We know outcomes post-event, not pre-event. But business, humans, planners, people who bet on horses etc, want to to know what the outcomes will be before the race starts. Trouble about horse-racing is you can never be absolutely sure!!


  4. ‘Talk to any good head teacher …’ and they’ll agree with me. ‘Good teachers’ …. agree with me, too. Michael Wilshaw’s discourse is crude soapbox stuff, loved by the Daily Telegraph and anyone else who approves of the commodification of education. But the British National Association of Head Teachers passed a motion by 99% deploring Wilshaw’s rhetoric and his feeble grasp of teaching realities. He may be head of Ofsted, but it’s also worth remembering that he was appointed by Michael Gove and Gove is still his boss. Gove, the minister for education, has been the subject or more-or-less unanimous no-confidence votes by all the main teaching unions. Frankly, if you care at all about education, you have to be opposed to everything that Wilshaw and Gove are in favour of.

  5. Hello, Jeremy!
    Among other things, you all wrote here about stages, progress, vision, levels, proficiency and uncertainty. What keeps coming back to me is why do some people think they should reject testing students or being tested themselves, when our human race has been implicitly and explicitly tested since the beginning of times? I don’t intend to sound ridicule, but isn’t our entire life/ profession very much like a test, with multiple choices, open endings and various assessors at each stage? Subjectively or not, we compare things every day and base our judgments on external or internal criteria; some of these pertain to our prior knowledge/ education, while others come from outside the system. Do we trust them or not? Do we evolve or not? Is life/ our profession an ongoing process or not? Do we really know/ can we envisage its outcome? I personally choose to see language learning as both a free and a controlled process, though I should call it an “event”, and we can assess it only in part, since it goes way beyond any school, scale or border ( think passion and creativity in a language). That is why a true language learner is, for me, a miracle and only time (especially the future) can prove me otherwise.
    So, Jeremy, is there anything more puzzling than “never to be absolutely sure”? And if so, should I be afraid of it?

    Best wishes,

  6. Jeremy,

    The way you look at (operationalise I mean) accountability, that way you will have the answer.
    The Ofsted is about to reduce accountability into the finial final product. However ,from my humanistic perspective, every product has a process beforehand.

    surprising to me was the Ofsted chief stating :”Talk to any good head teacher”. He is actually encouraging a stereotyping ! And more importantly, he is just passing the buck . He is tired of troubles associated with formative assessment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s