Contact us on LIVE CHAT for the completely plagiarism free work, in the best possible price, done by experienced Experts!

Testing for language teachers

Testing for language teachers

Backwash is the effect that tests have on learning and teaching. Since the
first edition of this book, there has been evidence of a much greater
interest in backwash
1 than was previously the case, and its importance
in language testing is generally accepted. There has been research, there
have been calls for an explicit model of backwash which can be tested
empirically, and an entire issue of
Language Testing has been devoted to
the topic. Backwash is now seen as a part of the impact a test may have
on learners and teachers, on educational systems in general, and on
society at large.
I have no doubt that over the next few years further research into
backwash will result in a better understanding of the processes involved
and how different variables contribute to its effect in different situations. Nevertheless, I believe that the basic practical advice which I gave
in the first edition of this book for promoting beneficial backwash
continues to be appropriate and, for that reason, I repeat it below. It is
for readers to decide how the suggestions I make can be implemented in
their own situation.
Test the abilities whose development you want to encourage
For example, if you want to encourage oral ability, then test oral
2. This is very obvious, yet it is surprising how often it is not done.
There is a tendency to test what is easiest to test rather than what is
most important to test. Reasons advanced for not testing particular abilities may take many forms. It is often said, for instance, that sufficiently
high reliability cannot be obtained when a form of testing (such as an
oral interview) requires subjective scoring. This is simply not the case,
and in addition to the advice already given in the previous chapter, more
detailed suggestions for achieving satisfactory reliability of subjective
tests are to be found in Chapters 9 and 10. The other most frequent
6 Achieving beneficial backwash
https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511732980.007 Published online by Cambridge University Press
Testing for language teachers
reason given for not testing is the expense involved in terms of time and
money. This is discussed later in the chapter.
It is important not only that certain abilities should be tested, but also
that they should be given sufficient weight in relation to other abilities.
I well remember my French master telling the class that, since the oral
component of the General Certificate of Education examination in
French (which we were to take later in the year) carried so few marks,
we should not waste our time preparing for it. The examining board
concerned was hardly encouraging beneficial backwash.
Sample widely and unpredictably
Normally a test can measure only a sample of everything included in the
specifications. It is important that the sample taken should represent as
far as possible the full scope of what is specified. If not, if the sample is
taken from a restricted area of the specifications, then the backwash
effect will tend to be felt only in that area. If, for example, a writing
test were repeatedly, over the years, to include only two kinds of task:
compare/contrast; describe/interpret a chart or graph, the likely outcome is that much preparation for the test will be limited to those two
types of task. The backwash effect may not be as beneficial as it might
have been had a wider range of tasks been used.
Whenever the content of a test becomes highly predictable, teaching
and learning are likely to concentrate on what can be predicted. An
effort should therefore be made to test across the full range of the specifications (in the case of achievement tests, this should be equivalent to a
fully elaborated set of objectives), even where this involves elements that
lend themselves less readily to testing.
Use direct testing
As we saw in Chapter 3, direct testing implies the testing of performance
skills, with texts and tasks as authentic as possible. If we test directly
the skills that we are interested in fostering, then practice for the test
represents practice in those skills. If we want people to learn to write
compositions, we should get them to write compositions in the test. If a
course objective is that students should be able to read scientific articles,
then we should get them to do that in the test. Immediately we begin to
test indirectly, we are removing an incentive for students to practise in
the way that we want them to.
https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511732980.007 Published online by Cambridge University Press
Achieving beneficial backwash
Make testing criterion-referenced
If test specifications make clear just what candidates have to be able to
do, and with what degree of success, then students will have a clear
picture of what they have to achieve. What is more, they know that if
they do perform the tasks at the criterial level, then they will be successful on the test, regardless of how other students perform. Both these
things will help to motivate students. Where testing is not criterionreferenced, it becomes easy for teachers and students to assume that a
certain (perhaps very high) percentage of candidates will pass, almost
regardless of the absolute standard that they reach.
The possibility exists of having a series of criterion-referenced tests,
each representing a different level of achievement or proficiency. The
tests are constructed such that a ‘pass’ is obtained only by completing
the great majority of the test tasks successfully. Students take only the
test (or tests) on which they are expected to be successful. As a result,
they are spared the dispiriting, demotivating experience of taking a test
on which they can, for example, respond correctly to fewer than half
of the items (and yet be given a pass). This type of testing, I believe,
should encourage positive attitudes to language learning. It has been
the basis of some GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education)
examinations in Britain.
Base achievement tests on objectives
If achievement tests are based on objectives, rather than on detailed
teaching and textbook content, they will provide a truer picture of
what has actually been achieved. Teaching and learning will tend to be
evaluated against those objectives. As a result, there will be constant
pressure to achieve them. This was argued more fully in Chapter 3.
Ensure the test is known and understood by students
and teachers
However good the potential backwash effect of a test may be, the effect
will not be fully realised if students and those responsible for teaching
do not know and understand what the test demands of them. The
rationale for the test, its specifications, and sample items should be
made available to everyone concerned with preparation for the test.
This is particularly important when a new test is being introduced,
especially if it incorporates novel testing methods. Another, equally
https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511732980.007 Published online by Cambridge University Press
Testing for language teachers
important, reason for supplying information of this kind is to increase
test reliability, as was noted in the previous chapter.
Where necessary, provide assistance to teachers
The introduction of a new test may make demands on teachers to
which they are not equal. If, for example, a longstanding national test
of grammatical structure and vocabulary is to be replaced by a direct
test of a much more communicative nature, it is possible that many
teachers will feel that they do not know how to teach communicative
skills. One important reason for introducing the new test may have been
to encourage communicative language teaching, but if the teachers need
guidance and possibly training, and these are not given, the test will not
achieve its intended effect. It may simply cause chaos and disaffection.
Where new tests are meant to help change teaching, support has to be
given to help effect the change.
Counting the cost
One of the desirable qualities of tests which trips quite readily off the
tongue of many testers, after validity and reliability, is that of practicality. Other things being equal, it is good that a test should be easy and
cheap to construct, administer, score and interpret. We should not forget
that testing costs time and money that could be put to alternative uses.
It is unlikely to have escaped the reader’s notice that at least some of
the recommendations listed above for creating beneficial backwash
involve more than minimal expense. The individual direct testing of
some abilities will take a great deal of time, as will the reliable scoring
of performance on any subjective test. The production and distribution
of sample tests and the training of teachers will also be costly. It
might be argued, therefore, that such procedures are impractical. In my
opinion, this would reveal an incomplete understanding of what is
involved. Before we decide that we cannot afford to test in a way that
will promote beneficial backwash, we have to ask ourselves a question:
What will be the cost of
not achieving beneficial backwash? When we
compare the cost of the test with the waste of effort and time on the part
of teachers and students in activities quite inappropriate to their true
learning goals (and in some circumstances, with the potential loss to the
national economy of not having more people competent in foreign
languages), we are likely to decide that we cannot afford not to introduce a test with a powerful beneficial backwash effect.
https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511732980.007 Published online by Cambridge University Press
Achieving beneficial backwash
Reader activities
1. How would you improve the backwash effect of tests that you know?
Be as specific as possible. (This is a follow-up to Activity 1 at the end
of Chapter 1.)
2. Rehearse the arguments you would use to convince a sceptic that it
would be worthwhile making the changes that you recommend.
Further reading
Alderson and Wall (1993) question the existence of backwash. Wall and
Alderson (1993) investigate backwash in a project in Sri Lanka with
which they were concerned, argue that that the processes involved in
backwash are not straightforward, and call for a model of backwash
and for further research.
Language Testing 13, 3 (1996) is a special issue devoted to backwash. In it Messick discusses backwash in relation to validity. Bailey
(1996) reviews the concept of backwash in language testing, including
Hughes’s (1993) proposed model and Alderson and Wall’s (1993)
fifteen hypotheses about backwash. Shohamy et al (1996) report that
two different tests have different patterns of backwash. Wall (1996)
looks to developments in general education and to innovation theory
for insights into backwash. Watanabe (1996) investigates the possible
effect of university entrance examinations in Japan on classroom
methodology. Alderson and Hamp-Lyons (1996) report on a study into
TOEFL preparation courses and backwash.
Hamp-Lyons’s (1997a) article raises ethical concerns in relation to
backwash, impact and validity. Her 1997b article discusses ethical issues
in test preparation practice for TOEFL, to which Wadden and Hilke
(1999) take exception. Hamp-Lyons (1999) responds to their criticisms.
Brown and Hudson (1998) lay out the assessment possibilities for
language teachers and argue that one of the criteria for choice of assessment method is potential backwash effect.
1. In much of this work the word ‘washback’, rather than ‘backwash’ has
been used. Where ‘washback’ came from I do not know. What I do know
is that I can find ‘backwash’ in dictionaries, but not ‘washback’.
2. Bearing in mind what was said in Chapter 4, it is important that the
scoring or rating of test performance (as well as the means of elicitation)
should be valid.
https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511732980.007 Published online by Cambridge University Press


Comments are closed.