Image courtesy of Jack Hynes
I’m back! For those that actually read my blog, I apologize for the long hiatus. In keeping with the spirit of this blog and my single word titles, I give you my one word excuses: testing, marking, moving, celebrating, moving, searching, moving, buying, interviewing, accepting, learning, teaching, preparing, sleeping. There, does that help?

There have been a few things floating around in my mind lately (but only a few), most of them related to assessment. My current frustration is with ‘teaching to the test’, often associated with washback (not to be mistaken for backwash which is just gross). I am getting ahead of myself. Let me back track a bit.

I arrived at one of my new jobs for an orientation meeting followed by a staff meeting. Everything is going well, that is until the topic of testing pops up. The conversation goes something like this:

“So that is the new curriculum guidelines for the reading course. Any questions?”

“Yes. When are we going to be able to see the final exams?”

“Uh, well, that isn’t my area. You would have to talk to {insert false name here}. She is in charge of creating the exams.”

“Well, how are we supposed to know what needs to be taught without seeing the final exams first?”

{Mind explodes. Hand griping my pen a little too tightly. Not looking back to see who said it. Might display the horror on my face.}

This isn’t the first time I have had this experience, and I am sure it won’t be the last. Likely, this has also occurred some time in your past. I get it, but only to a point. The problem, as I see it, is two-fold: a lack of understanding on the purpose of goals and objectives combined with a possibility of no or little connection between the curriculum and the assessment. My belief is that curriculum and assessment ideally should be designed together. There are going to be some circumstances where testing is separate (ex. standardized tests such as IELTS to TOEFL), but this can often cause a negative washback as some teachers help students find ways to ‘beat the test’ instead of improve their language skills. Also, we are finding more often than not that standardized tests are being used for the wrong reasons. A case in point is the use of IELTS to say that students are prepared to enter university. More times than not, institutions are finding that students are ill prepared for the rigours of academic writing, especially in the area of critical thinking, and also are finding it difficult to follow lectures and take notes. These tests were not designed to measure those skills. They just take a glancing look at where the student is at in the areas of traditional language skills areas. Some will argue that these tests do look for critical thinking skills in the writing tasks, but how can this be done meaningfully when the topics are surface deep (at best) and don’t require any analytical skills (ie. research)? Okay, I have gone a bit of topic here. Now back to our regularly scheduled blog post.

In Designing language courses: A guide for teachers, Graves (2000) shares four major purposes for assessing learning as part of the course design. These include: assessing proficiency, diagnosing ability/needs, assessing progress, and assessing achievement. Some of these sound the same on the surface, but they really are different. Proficiency is what students can do with the language at that time (often used for placement), diagnostic is used to measure against the objectives for a task or skill (finding holes), progress measures against the various points along the journey (milestone markers), and achievement is used to measure the total objectives for a course (completion). All of these things hinge on knowing what is expected of both the teacher and the student. We don’t use the test to set the curriculum, we use the curriculum to set the test. What do you want the student to be able to learn in the course? How are you going to help get them there? After all of that, how are you going to measure it? When you set the exam and the benchmark BEFORE preparing the course, you shackle the teacher and student.

I have heard from others that they don’t want to have objectives or tests. Okay, that is like getting in a taxi and telling the driver to go. The first question you are going to get from him is “where?” You might say, just drive and let’s see where it takes us. That’s a bit of a crap shoot. You might gloriously find something amazing, but likely you are going to be bitterly disappointed and broke. Students actually like objectives. They like knowing what is expected of them. Before anyone gets on me about having the students take control of their learning, I think there is a place for objectives and being learner-centred. There is a basic framework that needs to be set up first before approaching the students. Once that is done, students can set their own goals based on the objectives. Seems simple, but it requires a great deal of work on the behalf of the teacher and the student.

Am I being to ‘pie in the sky’ about assessment? Maybe, but I hope it can get people thinking before they demand to be told how to assess their students. Be bold. Jump in and make your voice known. You just never know what might happen.


Graves, K. (2000). Designing language courses: A guide for teachers. Boston: Heinle.

2 thoughts on “Testing

  1. Not pie in the sky at all. Although there is some logic to the idea that one designs the test first and then builds the curriculum around it (I’m talking courses that don’t use IELTS, but creates their own), I’ve always been a bit dumbfounded by this style of thinking. Yes, there are goals and objectives to meet during a course, but everytime I’ve taught a course, the curriculum we’ve developed has morphed through response to student needs and renders a pre-made exam less than ideal. Assessment in other forms–project work, term papers, etc–speak more to my idea of this type of thinking. Is it different than teaching to the test? No, not altogether, but the skills required to complete the assignment are a bit more fluid and flexible it seems, with us teaching the general skills needed to complete the assignment, but focusing on material in the ‘open space’ of the curriculum to respond to individual student weaknesses.

    Maybe I’m contradicting myself.

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