The Case for Standardised Tests in ESL and EFL
Tests & Assessment

The Case for Standardised Tests in ESL and EFL

I took several standardised tests when I was a learner of English. Setting myself the goal of getting an English language certificate provided an exciting learning challenge and gave me the motivation to keep improving my language skills. 

All the language exams and tests I did were useful and don’t regret taking any of them.

As an English language teacher, however, I realized that standardised testing may harm language learning if we don’t approach and treat it for what it really is: a tool to help learners learn.

The Pitfalls of Standardised Tests

1. Teaching and learning to the test

Any good teacher hopes to see his or her students succeed, so it’s natural to want our learners to pass a language test.

Testing, however, may have a common and well-documented “washback effect” on teaching and learning, an effect we often refer to as “teaching to the test”. 

In essence, knowing what’s on a test may lead you to teach only what’s required to pass it, which may be different from teaching what your students actually need to learn. This may affect students too as they might end up “learning to the test”. 

“Teacher, will we be tested on this grammar point?” Say no, and they may avoid learning it. 

2. Test scores as the only marker of success

The question here is: Do we want to instil a passion, a desire for learning the most spoken language in the world so our students can become great communicators and achieve their life goals, or do we want them to obsess, stress, and compete over percentages, points, scores, and labels (A1, A2, B2, etc.)? 

The moment our students see “getting a good score” as the ultimate and most desirable goal of learning English is the moment they lose sight of what learning a language is for: communication, connection, cultural exchange, exploration, and personal development.

We shouldn’t let that happen.

Test scores, if we’re not careful, can also influence our perceptions of students’ abilities, too.

3. Labelling students

The Educational Research Centre conducted a study into standardised testing in lower secondary schools across several countries. The results showed that tests may lead teachers to labelling students and form expectations that students want to conform to.

On page 55, the report states:

“If test scores underestimate a student’s ability and/or achievement, as they are likely to do in the case of students of low socioeconomic status, then students may perform less well scholastically than they might have done if teachers did not have access to test scores.”

Does this mean standardised testing, English language certificates and exams should be banned forever? 

We would be wrong to assume that standardised testing is the root of all evil. Testing does have benefits and the importance of language assessment can’t be underestimated

A standardised test, like any other tool, can have good or bad consequences on learning based on how teachers and students see it and use it. 

A Healthy Approach to Standardised Tests

If we focus on the process, good outcomes will likely follow. So if we teach with learning in mind, it’s likely that test scores will take care of themselves.

What does this mean in practice?

It means using our skills to foster a classroom (school?) culture that prioritises curiosity, exploration, critical thinking, and self-growth, and deprioritises mere memorisation of facts that students need to regurgitate in a test.

It means seeing the process of preparing ESL students for standardised tests and English language certificates as an opportunity for them to get out of their comfort zone, learn new things, stay motivated, make progress, and become better users of the language.

It means raising our students’ awareness of why it’s important to learn what they’re learning.

My heart sank when, at the beginning of a course, I asked my class, “How do you want me to help you throughout this course?” and one student replied, “I want you to help me pass the final test.” 

That student was too focused on the short-term goal of getting a good score. If you get similar answers from your learners and want to shift their focus on long-term learning outcomes, there may be some mindset work to do there, don’t you think?

“Focusing on test scores as the goal of learning or posting interim test results is antithetical to developing a learning-focused classroom culture.”

As a student, I experienced the painful feeling of getting a bad score on a test. But I never got asked by a teacher why I got a bad score, let alone received help to understand how I could improve and learn better. The assumption was: “You didn’t study enough.”

When administering standardised formative tests, most of my teachers just recorded a percentage in their register and moved on to teaching the curriculum.

Is this helpful teaching? Is this helpful testing? Is this what language assessment is for?

A healthy and balanced approach to testing doesn’t involve treating tests as meaningless, administrative score-generating tools. 

It doesn’t mean supporting the view that getting an English language certificate marks the end of all learning. 

And it certainly doesn’t mean encouraging students to skip “bridge” classes so they can move on to getting certificates faster. 

Final Thought

Standardised testing has pros and cons, limitations and potentials. So we could turn a standardised test into an evil tool that strips the joy of learning out of the students, or we can treat it as one that helps them move forward. Knowing how to handle a standardised test can help us with the latter. 

“What is important for the [test] user is to develop the competence to select an appropriate instrument, to be aware of the conditions that should obtain during administration, to learn how to interpret and report scores, and to be aware of the limitations of tests and the undesirable, if unintended, consequences that can follow their use. Students and parents are likely to need assistance in the interpretation of scores.”

Standardised Testing In Lower Secondary Education, P.36


About the author:

Fabio Cerpelloni is a non-native English teacher and a writer. His credentials include a Cambridge CELTA and a Delta, and he is currently working on his MA thesis in Language Education.

Beyond the classroom, Fabio is a freelance writer, author, blogger, and podcaster. Currently based in Cogliate, Italy, Fabio is also the author of the book 'Any Language You Want,' which is heading towards a second edition.

Written by Fabio Cerpelloni
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