This article will ask why we test learners of English. 

Before I start, let's get some terminology straight. I'm not talking about exams. We as a society need exams. Governments and large institutions couldn't function without exams. Governments can't deal with tiny sub-sets of people: individuality prevents it from doing its business of dividing people up into large groups, separating out, say, the kind of person who will go on in life to run the laundrette on the corner, from those who will go on to run our banks into the ground. Governments have to plan via demographics. How many spaces will universities need in 20 years time? Will this area need a new or different type of school? Should we encourage people into the IT industry? This basic business of government - sorting people into socio-economic groups largely through the education system - has been going on for years. 

And there are some other exams, too, like driving tests, or IELTS, that need to exist to test a particular function. Such as whether Person A will be able to function on University course X in English (the English not being able to speak any other languages).

Okay, so we can see that there is an argument that exams need to exist. But tests? And by "test" I mean anything that looks or acts as a test, and that hasn't been designed by experts at a national level. Do they need to exist? Most teachers say yes. Let's look at some of the arguments why.

I need to see if my students have learned what I've taught them.

Well, this is the easiest one to answer. The answer is a simple "No, they haven't". Why? Well, because they have learned what they have learnt, and not what you have taught them. It has often been pointed out that the relationship between "teach" and "learn" is very different from that of "sell" and "buy". You can't say "I sold him the bike, but he didn't buy it". Yet all round the world staffrooms are filled with people saying "I taught the present perfect but they still haven't learnt it". Learners learn what they notice, not what the teacher notices for them. There may be happy occasions where the teacher helps the learner to notice. But these are few and far between. Because there isn't much time to allow for encouraging or assisting learners to pay attention to their individual intake because… we must cover the syllabus so they can pass the test.

I need to see if my learners have made progress

Another easy one. The answer is that your test won't tell you this. The chances that we could devise a test that could test exactly the same items or skills on Occasion A as again on Occasion B are tiny. And what would it tell us anyway? "This person has made progress". Oh. Good. Can it tell us why? Can it tell us how? Can it tell us whether, if we had taught differently,  they would make the same progress? Or less? Or more? Should they have made more progress than the progress they did make? Then you start asking "What is progress?", and we disappear down the rabbit hole of madness. 

And progress tests can easily be misused. Sometimes teachers want to prove to themselves that they have been Doing A Good Job. Sometimes Academic Directors use them to prove the opposite – as a form of teacher appraisal: "none of her students knew their reported speech!" 

Of course, progress is entirely a perceptual construct, so really it would be better to ask the learner "Do you feel you have made progress?" Our learners might then consider the question, and this might lead to a discussion about what helps them learn, how they notice progress, how the teaching process could help more. But of course that syllabus means we haven't got time. And the learners know the game. They will say "Yes, I have made a lot of progress. Could you write that on my report, please?" Because they realise that schools value tests more than learning.

I need to know what they don't know

Another familiar test is the placement and/or needs analysis test. These are often the saddest tests. A group of teachers with a dodgy take on grammar and testing will devise a test which will cover the traditional structures in a traditional order, with a few prepositions and phrasal verbs thrown in. This will represent The Ladder of English (or any other language), up which prospective learners will be sent, like newly press-ganged recruits on 18th century sailing ships, up, into the masts amid the howling winds of the Mixed Conditional and the Gales of Inversions. In colleges and offices some of these items will be replaced by Special Vocabulary and be born again as ESP. Does "the language of negotiation" come higher or lower than "describing graphs"? The tragedy is that, once this information is collected and the scores assigned, what does it mean? Who will interpret it and following what logic? Why test these things indirectly when you could simply ask a question? It's as if involving the learner is somehow a threat: we need to prove our professionalism by producing – yes! a special syllabus to follow. And then test.

A waste of time

Let's face it. Most testing that we do today is a waste of time. It has all the trappings of good responsible teaching, but essentially is just a time-consuming activity. Teachers administer tests that take up useful class time (unless, of course, they're being used as a form of collective class punishment). And then comes the marking… "Do we give half-marks or not?" "I think she's shown she understands the questions" "Does spelling count?" "Is that an "s" or a squiggle?" Hours of this stuff using all your breaks at school or late at night while the family watches TV in another room wondering where you are. To produce – what? 


Registration software produced where I once worked allowed us to enter a single percentage mark to sum up a learner's year of learning. Yes, we had to summarise Peter. We had to balance out his reading difficulties and his handwriting issues with his wide vocabulary and his excellent interest in the classes, his variable control of past tenses, his playing a constructive and leading role in group work but with his high total of absences due to him taking his sister to school when his mother was working. When I asked where I could enter these comments, I was told the software didn't keep comments, just percentages. Okay then. Let's give him, erm, 58.5% then. And round it up. Of course, every teacher in the school used slightly different criteria and assigned their percentages in different ways. The school thought that made us look unprofessional. So they told us to write a test to make it fairer.

Testing. Yeah. Whatever…

By Andy Baxter



I completely agree with your point according to using tests, but in our school and in our school system they dominate. I must say that students are loosing their possibility to think, dream and discuss

   As a future teacher, with the article that I read, I saw the negative part of testing. It is not just simply used as to check the comprehension and to know if they learned. We should also be looking at the process on how the student learned. Because I come to realize, that students may cheat on us in pencil and paper exams or test. So does that make our evaluation or assessment accurate?  Definitely not, but then examinations still has a big role in the education system.

Thanks for this fantastic artlcle.  Where I live not only are pupils tortured daily with grammar but they are also constantly tested.  The education system here is built on the foundation of testing on a regular basis.  Students are so experienced at taking tests that you would think they would excel in the international tests. Unfortunately, the opposite is true.  My feeling is that they are so overwhelmed by grammar and tests that their confidence is destroyed.  Let's get back to teaching English in order to communicate, understand and be understood.  I am confident that if we do so we will see improved exam results as a consequence.

I think tests have good points and bad ones,too.According to their style of learning many students find it easy to work on test,while some others find it difficult.But tests play an important role in our schools and education system.
They are not only the tests which check the student's knowledge.

How to evaluate students? How could we not possibly frustate them or promote them fairly?
If what they learn in the future will depend on they retain or not as learning is cumulative, I wonder if they are ready to go on on this way...

Thank you for writing. One more remark: not only do the tests take valuable lesson time, but also they limit the students' capability of communicating and thinking logically. All they need is to learn to do tests, and that's it. 

Dear Andy,
Thank you for sharing your reflections with us. I agree with every single idea you describe so clearly. The other day one of my students took TOEFL ibt, she was terribly nervous, she had applied for Harvard, thus she needed a high score in her exam. The situation in the exam room was far different from the quiet and realxed  atmosphere we have in our classroom. There, the students were all recording their speaking activities, mumbling their words, all doing different speaking tasks, while others working on their reading or writing. She got so frustrated. And I really wonder if the result she got  really shows her ability to use English, her ability to think critically. With all respect to tests administrators, my answer is "no". Fortunately, she can take toefl again soon.
How much do test administrators really help provide the correct atmosphere to help students produce good answers? I persuade my students that taking the exam is a possibility to share the work they have done in and out of the classroom. 
Because, after all, is it possible to get a degree without tests and exams? Is it possible to apply for a master or PhD in an English speaking country without taking an internationa exam? The answer is abvious. Maybe we, as teachers and facilitators have to work on developing the appropriate skills to taking exams.
I feel you might consider my comment very critical when it comes to exams, but my students and I work hard for that day, and sometimes it turns out to be so frustrating. Sometimes ... 
Thank you for this opportunity to share experiences.

I do take in consideration your point of view. I think that tests have their good as long as their bad points,but we should "test "in order to "find " and tests are relative just like everything on Earth, aren`t they?

In our school system tests dominate a lot, but it isn't a problem. I think the only probem is that the tests are only in the written form and they take the final mark. It's not fair for the pupils. Pupils don't have to just write it but also and it's more important to speak and understand English. More space in speaking activity.


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