Creating a quality language test
Summary: A look at how to write a good language test.
What are the characteristics of a good language test? A good test should have a positive effect on learning, and teaching should result in improved learning habits. Such a test will aim at locating the specific and precise areas of difficulties experienced by the class or the individual student so that assistance in the form of additional practice and corrective exercises can be given. The test should enable the teacher to find out which parts of the language program cause difficulty for the class. In this way, the teacher can evaluate the effectiveness of the syllabus as well as the methods and materials he or she is using. A good test should also motivate by measuring student performance without in any way setting "traps" for them. A well-developed test should provide an opportunity for students to show their ability to perform certain language tasks. A test should be constructed with the goal of having students learn from their weaknesses. In this way a good test can be used as a valuable teaching tool.
The four major skill areas found in a good test consist of the following:
a) Oral: Tests should concentrate on those types of items which test for real-life situations. Therefore, questions testing the ability to understand and respond appropriately to polite requests: advice, instructions, directions, etc. are preferred to tests of reading aloud or telling stories.
b) Written: Questions requiring students to write letters, memos, messages and reports are more appropriately useful than the traditional compositions used in the past.
c) Reading and Listening: The ability to extract specific information of a practical nature is a preferable testing criterion to that of the old comprehension test which attempts to have the student give back irrelevant bits of information.
A communicative approach to language testing emphasizes the importance behind responding orally rather than their form and structure. Communication as the focus behind real-life language needs are approximated as closely as possible. Other testing approaches check formal linguistic accuracy. The communicative approach stresses how people actually use language for a variety of different purposes while other approaches are concerned with formal patterns of language such as "old school" or prescriptive grammar and vocabulary. Communicative testing is an attempt to integrate the testing of skills and not separate them as the formal approach does. Also this type of tests reflects the culture of a particular country because of their emphasis on context as well as the use of authentic materials. Unlike other testing approaches, these exercises test content that is totally relevant for a particular group of testers in real life situations. Communicative tests are based on precise and detailed specifications of the needs of learners. And finally communicative testing differs from other testing approaches because it introduces the concepts of quality in preference to quantity. The learner's levels of performance in different skills is tested. This enables the examiner to make decisions according to a carefully drawn-up and well-established criteria as well taking advantage of a humanistic attitude to language testing.
Each student's communicative performance is evaluated individually rather than in relation to the performance of other students.
Now let’s compare two different approaches to testing oral production. The preparation for these two approaches is similar in that students are given either a picture to study or questions they might be asked in an oral interview. With the picture item test, students are asked to describe or narrate what they see in a mixture of objective/subjective answers. Similarly, in an oral interview the person interviewed must describe themselves in terms of skills and assets and narrate their background when interviewing for a job. Both approaches test a range of total oral skills.
With careful picture selection basic vocabulary can be somewhat controlled and the tense sequencing can be suggested. The oral interview in this sense is more difficult since fewer guides or cues are given and the interviewee must respond to each question with only his or her language ability. All types of speaking tests should include: pronunciation, fluency, vocabulary knowledge, and grammatical control. The two approaches can be compared in this way: interviews use and develop fluency in vocabulary. On the other hand, picture-based speaking stresses vocabulary and grammatical control.
Oral performance on a test can be scored by the usage a sliding rating scale. For example:
(deduct from a sliding scale of 100.)
-2 points for pronunciation/intonation errors
-3 points for errors in verb tense usage.
-5 points for incomplete sentence usage.
While this type of sliding scale may be used to rank or score an oral performance, difficulties may arise when establishing such a grading curve since results can at times be subjective. Differing instructors may find themselves with deviations in the test scoring process which could result in confusion for those required to take such an examination.
In conclusion, what we need in order to evaluate a student properly is to utilize the following:
1. Validity. Validity refers to measurement and assessment. They must reflect what the teacher wants the class to learn. This is usually a judgmental decision.
2. Reliability is the accuracy of measurement. It is a technical problem. It should be close to precise.
3. Discrimination is the feature of a test that demonstrates the capacity to reflect difference in the performances of individuals in a group.
4. Avoid the “backwash effect” which refers to the effect of testing on an instructor's teaching methods previously done. For example: A teacher who tests on correct sentence structure may inhibit free-flowing conversation from his students.
5. Item analysis refers to the consideration of the results obtained from objective testing. This is for the purpose of providing valuable information concerning the effectiveness of teaching on a group of students/individual and the evaluation of the items contained in the test.
A test should be constructed with the goal of having students learn from their weaknesses. It will locate the exact areas of difficulties experienced by the class or the individual student so that assistance in the form of additional practice and corrective exercises can be given. The instructor can evaluate the effectiveness of the syllabus as well as the methods and materials he or she is using.
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