English Exams

Exams: love them or hate them we all have to take them at some point in our lives. There are a plethora of exams out there to prove your level of English, and I won’t bore you all with the list. If you want to know which one to take you can look here: which test to take?

But what’s the point? Of exams, I mean, and specifically exams to test competency in English.

BULATS english exam test cambridgeI’ve just returned from the BULATS World Forum in Cambridge, and it was a point discussed by experts from all over the world. Let me share some of my reflections with you.

English Exams can test various things:

  • Grammar and lexis, these are the easiest to test, of course and suit a structuralist approach (as opposed to a competency based programme). However, ability to recognise gramatical patterns and rules does not necessarily equate with communicative competence.
  • Oral expression. Obviously an oral exam is required for this, and as speaking is perhaps the most versatile means of communication, one would have thought it pretty fundamental to a balanced assessment of one’s ability to communicate in English. Beware exams that do not include the option of oral assessment.
  • Comprehension, which is normally sub-divided into:
    • Oral comprehension (listening skills)
    • Written comprehension (reading skills)

It’s easy to criticise exams from a pedagogical point of view. But they have their place. Human beings are motivated by tangible targets and let’s face it, the anxiety of a pending exam does lead to at least some revision of course content.

A common complaint

Teachers’ most frequent complaint is that exams test ability to pass exams, not necessarily competence to perform in real life situations. It’s much easier, especially for non-native teachers of English, to construct a syllabus based on grammar and lexis, which is testable and measurable, rather than communicative competence, which can be devilishly difficult to pin down. This, unfortunately, is why language programmes in Spanish state primary and secondary schools tend to be so ineffective. When you build a syllabus on skills development and functional competence it raises challenges when it comes to evaluation and does not lend itself to traditional paper based examinations.

Let me note a couple of things. Computer adaptive tests (a good summary of the advantages of which can be referenced here), tend to give better results and the testing experience certainly seems to be less stressful for the candidate, allowing him or her to perform in line with real ability. They are also the natural partners of Blended Learning Programmes, as they are, by their very nature, deliverable online.

Skills development is a process

Last point: Exams tend to be taken at the end of a course. Skills development is something that is gradual, requiring persistence and practice. A balanced evaluation system may not be 100% reliant on ‘exams’. Performance throughout a course, and assessment of skills development via task evaluation, although resource heavy, have great added value.

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