What Students Can(n’t) Do with Tests

Much has been written and said about tests. A lot of teachers, students, and parents don’t see the point of tests, especially when all tests do is test discrete items of grammar and vocabulary , especially when it comes to summative tests, which assess what students have learned over a period of time. I myself don’t believe in the predictive value of tests, either. I don’t think effective test takers are  more likely to achieve success in their lives. Many other factors impact one’s professional life: Interpersonal skills and problem solving skills in everyday situations count more when one is faced with real life challenges. Not to mention that written tests can be a nightmare for dyslexic students and those who don’t cope with pressure.


On the other hand, formative tests monitor students during the learning process. Students are awarded grades which are usually an add-on to the grades they will be awarded in their summative quizzes and exams. Other skills are at stake in formative tests: public speaking and research skills, but unfortunately, most schools don’t rely much on them to formally assess student knowledge.  This leads to students graduating from high school  with no oral presentation skills or the skills necessary to write a research paper. Creativity is also  neglected in schools, especially when it comes to testing. Students are not encouraged to think creatively or to think critically especially when tests cover whole textbook chapters which need to be memorized.  Debating and delivering presentations are often regarded as in-class activities and are not part of formal assessments. Students who perform poorly in tests don’t have the chance to show what they have learned in other ways while students who perform well in tests don’t have the chance to be challenged in other ways. It is as if every student had to fit the same mold when it comes to testing. It would be just great if students could choose how they would like to be tested at least once during the semester, and it would be great if different assessment methods were equally valued.

In ESL contexts, tests also play an important role in measuring student knowledge. It is also a big industry. Language proficiency exams are sought after by students for many different reasons, but they cannot account for the communicative skills students will need in real life situations. It is a common misconception that knowing vocabulary and grammar means that someone has mastered the language well enough to carry out a conversation or to deal with a situation in a foreign language. As I pointed out before, the world out there is way more complex than a multiple choice question.  Preparing for exams helps; however, it takes a lot more than tests to prepare for life.

That said, grammar and vocabulary are usually the core of testing in many ESL contexts. It’s mostly about rephrasing sentences, describing a picture, and filling in the gaps. And as much as we offer our students opportunities for reflection, creative thinking and pragmatic competence in our classes, these aspects are rarely present in their assessment. Schools haven’t taken the leap to shift this paradigm when testing student knowledge, thus widening the gap between testing and real life.  To make matters worse, we are always pressed for time in our busy schedules. We don’t have time to think. We don’t have time to wonder about things we have been doing for so long. Same thing with our students. They take exams because they have to. They answer exam questions and get back their graded exams. We all know the drill. It’s like changing gears. We even like it even after having spent the whole night cramming for a test. That’s the way it is. Is there a way out of it? Most likely the answer is no.

However, even if we cannot escape the traditional assessment methods, we can still take some small steps towards reflection. I usually invite my students to answer a few questions on the day I hand back their graded exams. I ask them to figure out why they missed an answer and why they got an answer  right. I also ask them to find a silly mistake and to wonder why they made it. I invite them to share their thoughts with each other if they feel comfortable and I ask them what they learned from my comments on their essays. Last week I asked my students to take home with them something that they liked about their essays. I also asked them to think of advice they would give someone who has to take that same test. Questions may vary depending on the class , but what really matters is that they get the chance to think even if time is short. To think is to exist in ourselves and in the world, so give your students some space to spend time with themselves.

Teresa Carvalho

Teresa holds a B.A. in Linguistics from USP and Delta Modules 1 and 2 Certificates. She has been teaching for over 25 years and has presented at webinars and at both local and international Conferences, including ABCI, IATEFL, and the Image Conference. She also holds a Specialization degree in English Language from PUC-Rio. She is interested in visual literacy and in language development for teachers of English as a foreign language. She is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Language Studies and is conducting research in the role of images in the construction of identity.

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