Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Testing Times Ahead

This week the students on our English language courses are doing tests. The purpose of tests of this kind could be stated as something like this: ‘to obtain a sample, from about two and a half hours of your week, of what you can do in English in the way of listening, reading, speaking and writing, by assigning tasks that elicit as far as is realistic such linguistic responses as might be expected of a learner of your level in the world outside the classroom.’ There now, that doesn’t sound too bad, does it? If you have been in England for six months and attended 20 hours a week of input and practice, surely it is no biggie to sit down for a while and do the same sort of thing with, as it were, the stabilisers removed.

Hardly anyone in my group would buy the rationale for testing given above. They are convinced that all tests are produced by snotty academics whose purpose is to expose the students’ ignorance. ‘No surprises!’ I said when they were pumping me for details. ‘Just the sort of stuff you have done lots of times before.’ Yeah, yeah, but what’s in it? ‘Would it be a test if I told you? Anyway, I don’t know, I haven’t seen the papers.’ But tests always have tricks in them. What if there are tricks, as usual? ‘No tricks,’ I insist, to widespread but good natured scepticism… ah, we know you of old, you don’t fool us.

In teacher training seminars I used to do a lot of burbling about product and process. Your answer to a question or solution to a problem is the product. In order to produce it you went through a mental process. Principled language teaching is focussed mostly on the process part of learning: how did you come up with that answer, whether it was right, wrong or merely iffy? If you are teaching, your aim might be stated as ‘to enable students to…’ If you are focussing on practice, the aim is ‘to allow students to …’ and if you are testing it becomes ‘to see if students can…’ This might sound obvious, but it is far from universally accepted.

Many students around the world are left by their teachers to do all the learning alone, and the teacher simply listens to them recite the lesson. I recall one inset session in Greece where I asked the teachers to list all the problems their students presented when reading English texts in class. It took some prompting but we came up with a list that looked pretty much like this:

  1. They have lots of unknown vocabulary and they don’t know how to deal with it.
  2. They tend to think they have to show 100% understanding of a text. It's all or nothing.
  3. They read all texts in the same way, word-for-word-at-snail’s-pace, (abetted by the often pointless practice of reading aloud) so by the time they reach the end of a sentence they have already forgotten the beginning.
  4. They don’t look at the questions so as to determine what information they need to find and what they can safely ignore.
  5. They ignore features of a text such as titles and paragraph headings that could guide them to the information they need.

As the list was being compiled, the teachers did a fair bit of tutting and eyebrow-raising. ‘Gawd, yeah, they do that, don’t they just! Exactly what my lot always do!’ Then realising we were only fifteen minutes into the session and that there must have been some point to drawing up such a list, someone said ‘so, are you saying we have to help them not to do these things?’ I was gobsmacked. I hope it didn’t show. That teachers existed to do precisely this was something I had taken completely for granted. These teachers had not. It was obviously a new thought, at least to some of them.

I suspect most of the students in our centre, who are nearly all from Libya and Saudi Arabia, have been taught by teachers who saw no need to focus on the cerebration required before words pop out of your mouth or onto the page, and who did not see testing as just a sampling of what students can be expected to do at their level after a period of instruction and practice, i.e., no big deal. The rationale of tests and exams should be spelled out in terms accessible to anyone about to take them, but it seems it rarely is. The drama surrounding tests in Greece used to drive me barmy. Kids doing the international exams such as Cambridge First Certificate would have parents and teachers waiting anxiously for them outside the exam centre and inside, the teams employed by the British Council to administer the papers would patrol the classrooms invigilating the invigilators and ever on the lookout for cheats. It all seemed so… disproportionate, really, taking on the significance of a rite of passage when it should have been more like a routine urine test.

We did the listening test yesterday morning and it took up 45 of the official 100 minutes of our session. I called a break after the test and said we’d carry on as normal after a breather. Ameen accosted me and with the mixture of soft earnestness and self-mockery which he does very well, he presented the case for ditching the rest of the session. Hands held at shoulder height, palms open, as of one pleading or preaching, he cajoled ‘Steve, I think now, not lesson. Very stress! Oh… (striking breast rapidly in imitation of tachycardia) it’s have many stress! Now, not lesson. In the afferternoon, comes other test! So now, I think, smoke cigarette, drink coffee, relackess.’ In fact, I would have liked to call off the rest of the session as well, the sooner to get the marking out of the way, but was bound by management not to agree openly. Through his spiel, I mimed playing ‘Sob Story’ on the violin, and after the break we proceeded as normal, so as not to reinforce the idea that a short test is an ordeal to be compensated for with extended breaks and paregoric coffee and fags. I still don’t think they bought it, though.

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