Living to tell the tale: a history of language testing

In this plenary talk, Barry O'Sullivan looks at the history and relevance of language testing.

1 hour

About the talk

'Many years later, as he faced retirement, the candidate was to remember that distant afternoon when his teacher took him to discover the test.'

Not quite Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but it is most likely we all remember when we were first introduced to the world of the test. For the first time we were measured, judged and labelled. This experience left some elated, others scarred, while the lucky ones didn’t really care too much. After all, it was just a test. A part of our education. Unavoidable.

But how did it come about that testing became such an integral part of education systems in the first place? And why are there such radically different approaches and attitudes to testing across the world?

This talk tells the story of the test. From its first appearance in China about 2,250 years ago to the industry it has developed into over the past century. Originally devised to identify individuals with the ability to govern the emerging Han Empire, the Chinese Imperial Examinations would evolve from the Sui Dynasty (605) into a formal, standardised system with many of the attributes we currently value in our tests. By the middle of the 19th century, Europe had begun to take note of the need for competitive examinations for military, educational and administrative posts, and in the early 20th century, the scene was set for the emergence of testing as a major industry. The different philosophies of learning and testing that emerged in the USA and Europe at the time were to leave an indelible mark on how testing is practised to this day.

Since these different philosophies also impact on how we perceive tests, I hope my story will encourage you to reflect on your experiences and re-evaluate the way you approach tests in your working life.


Submitted by Cath McLellan on Thu, 05/21/2020 - 11:29

In reply to by shelter2009us



You should be able to access this video again now - hope you find it useful.

Best wishes,


TE Team

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