Thursday, April 12, 2012
Keeping Our Eyes on the Testing Prize
By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author
All during our years of education and career training, one of the most important lessons driven home was that we need to stay focused, we need to keep our attention on what we’re doing, and we need to make sure not to get distracted. Nobody would disagree with any of this, right? Well, sometimes it’s not so easy to keep our eyes on that prize when it comes to testing.
One area where this became obvious to me in my early years of teaching ESOL was in testing listening comprehension. I realized that the tests I was given to use, created at various US universities and sold to schools like the ones I taught at, weren’t exclusively testing what they were supposed to be testing. Those tests almost always ended up inadvertently testing reading comprehension along with listening comprehension. Was that fair to my students? Not at all! If I want to test reading comp., I’ll test reading comp. But if I want to test listening comp., well, I shouldn’t be making my students read three or four sentences quickly and decide which written item reflects something they’ve just heard. I’m sure you see my point. For example . . .
The students hear: “There are quite a few students who have won scholarships this year.”
Then they quickly have to read the following and choose which sentence reflects what they’ve just heard:
- Many students won scholarships this year.
- Few students won scholarships this year.
- A relatively large number of students won scholarships this year.
- A few students got one scholarship this year.
The correct answer is 3, but it’s obvious that it wasn’t just listening comprehension that’s been tested; reading comprehension has been tested as well – and that’s just not fair.
So how do we overcome this problem of inadvertently testing reading when we really just want to test listening? It’s actually quite a challenge to accomplish because we need to rely on visuals, not reading, to avoid the problem. We need to come up with drawings, photos, and other kinds of graphic material that will reflect and not reflect each item that the students have heard. Here’s an example of what I mean.
The students hear the sentence and then look at the two pictures. They decide which one reflects accurately what they’ve just heard and that’s how they choose their answer. No need to inadvertently test reading comprehension, right?
Here are six more examples that I’d like to share with you.
So if you do test listening comprehension, do your best to find test items that will not accidentally test reading as well. True, sometimes a small amount of reading can’t be avoided, such as in the “How much does it cost?” example above, but I know you understand my point, and I hope you’ll be able to give your students fair listening comprehension tests if you decide to test them on this skill.
One other thing to keep in mind is the complexities of grading your students’ work in a writing class. How do you decide beforehand on how you’ll grade their work? Do you base your grading solely on their skill with the writing form you’ve just taught, e.g., a business letter or a basic composition, or do you grade them at the same time on the mechanics, such as punctuation and capitalization? And what about their grammar? Is it appropriate to judge them on their grammar in a writing class that focuses on forms of writing? Not such easy questions to answer, are they?
Well, I hope I’ve given you some food for thought. Let’s keep our eyes on the testing prize.