Principle 8: Testing is an aid to learning

Testing has so often been punitive. Students become very nervous about tests, which as often as not seek to discover what the students do not know or cannot immediately recall, rather than providing them with an opportunity to demonstrate to the examiners and themselves what they can do with the language. Many test-writers, unfortunately, concentrate on minutiae of language, looking for little slips or familiarity with lesser known grammatical usages rather then the broader aspects of comprehensible and acceptable language use. (Is this why teachers need answer keys to help them correct tests?) We must work to reduce in every possible way the debilitating level of anxiety and apprehension from which many students suffer in testing situations.

1. Rather than being a ranking, exclusionary procedure, tests should concentrate on enabling all students to demonstrate what they can do with whatever level of language they possess. In this way, the test is a guide to the students, as well as the teacher, as to what they have assimilated sufficiently for it to be usable for real communicative purposes, in speech or writing.[38] The test then becomes an aid to learning, not an intentionally tricky hurdle.

Computer-adaptive testing (CAT) is useful in this regard; the computer is programmed to seek out, through the choice of items presented, the individual student's performance level and to verify this level through further testing, terminating the test when this has been determined, so that students are not subjected to the frustrations of a multiplicity of items beyond their knowledge and competence. The verification check, providing as it does repeated testing round about a certain level, also reduces the possibility of measurement error that can creep in with a more hit-or-miss approach.

2. The test itself should be a learning experience that is part of the ongoing course. If the test is to act as a guide to the student as well as the teacher, it cannot be final. The student goes on to relearn and consolidate what has been found to be lacking or misunderstood, and then has the opportunity to retest (not "be retested," since the decision is voluntary) to see how the learning is progressing.[39] In brief, the test stimulates further learning. This approach to testing reduces the emotional and stressful element that discriminates against students of certain temperaments when faced with the once-for-all, future-determining character of much present-day testing.

3. It cannot be overemphasized that the test should reflect the objectives of the course, which, as we have seen in the discussion of Principle 2, should reflect the objectives of the student. For too long we have taught and students have learned one thing, and the test has concentrated on another (for instance, the course may be orally oriented, while the test is entirely written). This is often because we have relied on a kind of test that was easy to prepare and easy to correct, thus putting large groups through the same wringer for our own convenience. When this is not the case, the problem is frequently because the form of the test is already well known to teacher and students, and the teacher "teaches to the test," so that the students will perform well on the test whatever their linguistic strengths or weaknesses. We thus put expedience before educational objectives, and the test becomes the be-all and end-all of the course in the students' minds, and even for some of the teachers. This washback effect of the form of the test on the way the course is taught and the way students choose to learn cannot be ignored. Much thought is required to design a test appropriate for a particular course that will encourage effectual learning behavior, while enabling students to demonstrate their control of what they have been learning. The construction of tests is a process that requires not just time and energy but much reflection.

4. The test should be interesting. Students should enjoy taking the test. If thought is given to creating a test that involves students in working out interesting problems, comprehending and reacting to stimulating ideas, expressing their own ideas, or at least producing some form of original response, if students are asked to take the initiative in some way that enables them to demonstrate how well they can interact in the language (in speech or writing), then the test will be motivational and a means of growth for the students. We must be wary of ways of group testing that save time, but force us back into too much discrete-point testing, which encourages discrete-point teaching.

5.. Tests should not be rigidly timed. The old picture of the exam proctor forcing examinees to stop in the middle of a sentence because "time is up" should be obsolete as an absurdity. In a student-centered program we are aware of individual differences among students, and we recognize that some students think and write more deliberately than others; some are perfectionists; some rush at a task too precipitately and need time afterwards to edit and rethink parts of their work; some finish early; some need a little longer to proofread their final effort. In many tests, a few more minutes to demonstrate what the student knows can make all the difference between success and failure . We test for success.

6. We should avoid overtesting. Continual testing not only raises the anxiety level for students, it also reaches a point of diminishing returns. A test that reveals only what one already knows about the students is a superfluous test and a waste of valuable time that could be used more profitably for further interactive activity. Tests should be administered sparingly at intervals throughout the course when they can yield information on progress that is useful to both student and teacher.

7. An important question for many instructors is whether student-centered testing can be conducted for big groups (across sections in large institutions, across a number of schools in a local area, or for all students of a certain level in national examinations). A more appropriate question would be: Is there genuine educational value in wide-scale impersonal testing, in which, as we well know, a certain number of students always fall through the cracks, often through no fault of their own? The attainment of local or national standards can be ascertained, if so desired, by more personalized alternative forms of assessment (portfolios, for instance, oral interviews, or certified dossiers of personal production, which now may be in the form of videos, not just as written documentation). Fill-in-the blank and multiple-choice tests, although sometimes useful for quizzes of small segments of class work, do not tap performance levels in real language use. We need the development of more imaginative, humane tests of what one really does with language[40], just as art and music require different types of tests from fact-based content courses. We must train teachers well in testing theory and techniques so that testing can be conducted at the interpersonal, rather than the impersonal level.

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