Let's Talk About Testing!

 

Today we have a splendid opportunity to ask Zoltan Rezmuves some questions about testing. Zoltan Rezmuves currently works for Oxford University Press as Editorial Project Manager. He was an MA graduate in Teaching English as a Foreign Language at the ELTE University in Budapest (graduated in 1993) and worked as a teacher of English in a gymnasium in Budapest for 3 years, later moved into publishing and held various freelance jobs before starting his work for Oxford University Press (OUP). He has been based in Budapest, Hungary since September 2007, but previously he worked for OUP in Oxford from 1999 to 2007 — in his last position as the Managing Editor for Central Europe and Russia. He was mainly responsible for developing coursebooks for secondary schools (for students aged 12-19).


 

What is your experience in testing? How long have you been working with tests?

Testing was my specialisation in the final year at university, and as a course project led by my university tutor I was involved in designing a language exam for business assistants in 1993. I prepared students for their state school-leaving exams (taken in Hungary at the end of secondary studies, at the age of 18) in 1991, and I was also involved in administering the exam.

In my job at Oxford University Press, I have worked on several coursebooks which focused on preparation for language exams, for example Oxford Exam Excellence, Matrix and New Matrix, Solutions, Horizons and other courses. All these books have a strong exam training element integrated into the language work. I have also been doing teacher training and conference work on the subject of testing since 2001.

What is your attitude to testing? Some teachers in our country don’t trust tests, they say that a student can get lucky and the result is not reliable. Can you comment on this statement?

Well, if a test is well designed, luck will play a very small part in the final score. Only poorly designed tests allow students to perform better than their ability would enable them to do. There is a good reason for the fact that the same type of testing tasks appear in all current communicative exams around the world, for example — these are the task types that have been proven, through decades of experience, to work reliably.

We can also say that, generally, the more thorough a test is — in other words the wider range of skills it tests, and the more items each task has — the more reliable it is.

This is partly due to pure mathematics — statistically, the larger the sample, the more accurate the result. But the other reason, more relevant to us, teachers, is that every student has a different set of skills that they are good at.

A good test will examine a range of different skills, to allow us to identify each student’s strong
points — rather than just look at one or two aspects of language learning which might favour some of our students but not others.

I think testing, and more generally, assessment, is an integral part of language teaching.

Without stopping to make our measurements, we wouldn’t have a chance to find out what our students are good at, we wouldn’t have a chance to improve our own teaching syllabus, and also, we wouldn’t be able to make decisions about our students when it came to, for example, university admission, or winning a scholarship.

I think teachers have to accept that tests have an important role to play. They should also learn to trust tests — while also making sure that the tests they are using are appropriate for their students and that the tests are well designed.

When is it better to start introducing and practicing testing in school? Why?

All language teachers use testing as part of their teaching methodology — even though they do not always call this testing. Simply checking students’ homework, or asking a group or pair of students to perform at the front of the class is a form of testing. So testing is always part of what we do.

Testing should be a part of a teaching from the beginning — once formal language teaching begins.

By this I do not mean start introducing exams in primary school! I think formal examinations are best left to those waypoints where students complete their training in one institution and need a formalised certificate in order to gain admission to another, higher institution — for instance, completing secondary school and entering university.

In other words, if the course focuses on games, on nursery rhymes, basically just on familiarising kids with the concept of ‘other languages’ and on making kids love language learning — as many kindergarten/pre-school courses do, testing should not be a priority, in my opinion.

What peculiarities do tests for young learners have? 

In our profession, we call students up to the age of 11 young learners, so I’m probably not the best person to answer this question, as I have always specialised in the 12-19 age group.

Personally, I don’t think formal examinations are for younger children. If we do have to use tests for some reason, these should be appropriate for the age group, and they should not be overly formal. They should not be too long (as children under 11 have shorter attention spans), and they should not be too serious. But, as I said, this is just my personal view.

If by young learners, you simply mean “not adults”, that is, teenagers, I think the important thing is to make sure that students are only put by the test in situations that they could normally find themselves in in real life.

For example, if there is a speaking task where the candidate has to get some travel information, the student should only be asked to play the role of the passenger, never the ticket controller. Or, in a writing task, they should never be asked to prepare a business proposal for a new restaurant, but they could be asked to write about a new restaurant for a school magazine.

Tests designed for teenagers should not include any tasks that only adults can complete, they should not expect general knowledge that teenagers don’t have, and they should not feature situations that are not appropriate to the age group.

Our teachers usually develop tests themselves for their students. Can you give some practical pieces of advice how to develop reading, writing, listening and speaking tests? If there are some certain rules and principles, can you share them, please?

1.  Only test what you have taught.

2.  Tests should be pitched at the same level as the material you have already completed — do not be tempted to make a test “challenging” by making it too high-level, so only your best students can complete it. A good test should measure what students know, and not what they don’t know yet!

3.  Don’t think that a good test is a test where only a few students score 100%. Where a test is based on the material you have covered (which teachers’ own tests should be), it’s perfectly acceptable for the majority of your groups to score ‘above average’ — be happy you taught them so well.

4.  Only include skills that students have learnt and practised in your class. If you haven’t covered, for example, scanning for specific detail, or listening for the speakers’ attitude, don’t test it.

5.  Use task types that students are familiar with from their course. If you want to introduce a testing task type because, for example, you think it’s very reliable for instance, multiple choice, make sure students have practised completing similar tasks in class before you use it in a test.

6.  For reading, only use text types that students are familiar with — if your coursebook offers magazine articles, quizzes, leaflets, etc., these should be the types of texts that you use for the tests as well. Don’t use unfamiliar formats (for example, essays, before they are covered in the course).

7.  For listening, use very clear, good-quality recordings. Play each recording at least twice. If they are long, pause at the end of every logical section to allow students to absorb the information and think about what they have heard. Again, the point isn’t finding out what they can’t hear, it’s finding out what they can understand. Before you play the recording, allow time for students to read the task and think about it. A minute is usually sufficient.

8.  For writing, allow a sufficient amount of time. Use text types that you have already taught your students to create. Include helpful prompts, ideas, suggestions to get them started. The test should not focus on students coming up with all the ideas, it should focus on their ability to use the ideas you provided to create a well-written text. As a matter of principle, never ask students to write something they would not be able to write in Ukrainian or Russian.

9.  For speaking task types, use language exams as your models. Speaking tests should not be about students’ reciting memorised texts — these don’t show how well they can speak, these only show how good their memory is. When you test speaking, make sure students get points for

a)  getting their message across,

b)  including the information you asked them to include,

c)  communicating effectively, as well as for accuracy. If the three things I mentioned are achieved, a student should not fail the test even if they make a lot of mistakes!

10. If possible, have someone else — like another English teacher, or another speaker/student of English whose language skills are higher-level than the students you are going to test —  check the test you made by trying to answer each question. If they can’t, it’s probably the task’s fault — so you’ll need to think about rewriting it. Don’t be shy about trying out the tests — all professional language exams pilot their exams before they are ever used ‘live’.

What would you recommend to a teacher whose students are going to have a test in a year?

Check the exam’s requirements. Make sure you cover all the skills, all the topics, all the task types it is going to contain. Make sure your students know what will be expected of them. Give them plenty of opportunities to practise.

Focus on what they can do, not on what they can’t do. Build their confidence by building on their existing skills — give them praise for something they do well, but keep practising what they don’t do well until they get better. Give them opportunities to rehearse — for example, organise mock exams (where the focus is on practice, not on giving marks!) — so when they go to the real exam, it would not be their first time to do a certain type of task.

Most of all, don’t forget that your main goal is to teach them how to communicate in English — don’t sacrifice teaching to do testing all the time. Find a balance between these two. Continue with your coursebook, and supplement it with exam practice. Or choose a good coursebook that  does this both.

What effective strategies to prepare for tests do you use?

This question is too complex — the strategies I would recommend using have been developed into a coursebook that’s 200 pages long: Oxford Exam Excellence. It would be impossible to sum this up in a paragraph.

The key points are: familiarising students with the exam requirements (task formats, skills tested, topics covered), plenty of practice, and exercises which focus on the best practices for each task type or get into the logic of how testing tasks work.

This year Ukrainian students will have National English Test for the first time. Do you know about this kind of testing in other countries? In Hungary? When it started and what challenges did students and teachers face? How did they overcome them? (We can learn a lot from other countries’ experience)

Again, this is a very complex question.

Countries all around Europe have been introducing standardised national tests since the middle of the 1990s.

A compulsory examination taken at the end of secondary studies (at the age of 18-19) exists in Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Czech Republic, or Croatia — to name just a few.

In these examinations which test various school subjects, taking the test in a foreign language is also compulsory, and English tends to be the number one choice.

Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were the first countries to introduce the new exams — in 1995 and 1996.

A similarly prestigious examination exists in the Russian Federation, although it’s not compulsory for everyone in a foreign language — except for those who want to study English at university.

All these exams in English have a lot of similarities: they are all communicative exams, focusing on Reading, Listening, Writing and Speaking skills as well as on Use of English (which is grammar and vocabulary tested in context).

The biggest challenge for teachers was to switch to training for a skills-based exam. Some of them who favour grammar/vocabulary-based teaching, it was difficult to adapt to an exam which didn’t specifically test either.  (Which doesn’t mean, by the way, that grammar or vocabulary are less important in our teaching. It’s only the exams that have changed to reflect how we teach.)

They also had to learn new methods to train students for listening or reading tasks, for example.

For students, the greatest challenge was to accept that preparing for the new exams doesn’t involve memorising things — it’s not about being able to recite rules, sets of words and pre-written texts on the exam subjects.

You have travelled a lot. What can you say about teachers’ attitude to national testing in different countries?

Before a new exam is introduced, teachers are understandably worried everywhere — they are worried about “missing out something important”, and because they are conscientious, responsible people, they are worried about all their students passing the exam successfully.

They are worried because they are in a new situation — but normally, exams turn out to be a lot less frightening than they seemed.

After one or two experiences with the new exam, teachers usually say it’s better than the old
exams — which, I think, means it reflects their teaching methodology and priorities a lot better.

But teachers are also quite critical of any weaknesses that an exam has — the result is that the exam is usually improved by the Ministry of Education or the national exam board after a couple of years’ real-world experience.

Teachers also accept that standardised testing has more advantages than disadvantages — from its effect on the teaching methods to universities’ ability to make better assessment on applicants’ suitability for studying at a higher level and to make decisions on admissions.

Is there difference in every day teaching and teaching for testing?

No. The two should be integrated throughout the course — where the exam tests communication skills which the new generation of exams do, our focus should be on teaching our students to communicate efficiently in English, and to use the four skills competently. If students can do this, they’ll pass the exam.

Of course, you can help students perform better and to compensate for the stress of the exam day situation by giving them opportunities to practise what the exam will be like, and by familiarising them with its details.

Are there effective ways to teach for real life and for testing at the same time?

Yes. The key is finding the balance. Exam practice should be done in context — not in isolation.

Teach students the communicative skills they need, and use testing task types to check their comprehension, for example.

Good coursebooks (like Matrix, Solutions or Horizons — but I could name a lot of other current coursebooks as well) do this all the time, so it’s also important to learn to trust your coursebook — provided of course that you have chosen a good coursebook that does help in both of your objectives.

What do you prefer — every day teaching or teaching for testing? Why?

Well, my answers to the previous two questions should suggest that I don’t think these are separable. You don’t do one or the other in the classroom — you do both all the time.

What would you like to say to Ukrainian teachers who work with young learners and want their students to be successful in future testing?

Don’t be afraid of language exams: they are trying to test what you have already taught your students. At the same time, do give your students a lot of opportunities to understand the exam’s expectations, and build their confidence through a lot of practice. Don’t forget: your main objective is to teach your student to express themselves in a foreign language.

If you have taught them how to share their own views and opinions, to talk about their feelings and emotions, to tell others about their experiences, using English — you have achieved your goal. If your students can do all this, they will pass the exam, too.

Thank you very much!

Zoltan Rezmuves, Nadia Klymyshyn

 

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