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Testing as a Catalyst for Progress and Development

By Owen Connor


The testing of young learners is a controversial issue. Educationalists disagree on how, what and when to test. Indeed, some go as far as to say that testing is wholly inappropriate and unnecessary for young learners (Carter, n.d.). Testing with poorly formed and administered paper and pencil tests can be an enemy of language learning. Given a suitable balance between well constructed paper and pencil tests and other less threatening alternative forms of assessment, testing can be a positive force for progress and development for students and teachers.

What is testing?

For most people, memories of testing at school and/or university are not happy ones. As a result; testing has gained a bad press and become somewhat of an anathema. However, was it testing that terrified us or rather the form of testing that we were subjected to? In order to understand this testing must first be defined:

'The act of giving students or candidates a test (as by questions) to determine what they know or have learned' (

'The assessment of an individual's level of knowledge or skill, etc by a variety of methods' (Chambers 21st Century Dictionary Online)

The important difference here seems to lie in what is deemed to be the appropriate method of testing. The first appears to refer to more traditional paper and pencil tests whilst the second makes specific reference to assessment 'by a variety of methods'. This is an interesting difference because it mirrors the current debate in education circles as to whether traditional or more modern (alternative) forms of assessment are more appropriate for young learners. These alternative forms of assessment have been defined as 'any method of finding out what a student knows and can do that is intended to show growth and inform instruction and is not a standardized or traditional test' (Pierce and O'Malley, 1992, p.2 as cited in Shaaban, 2001).

The object of testing, therefore, is to gauge an individual's level of knowledge and understanding. The way in which this information is attained is the bone of contention rather than testing itself. Traditional paper and pencil tests and alternative forms of assessment will now be looked at in greater detail.

Paper and pencil tests

Paper and pencil tests are mainly a summative form of testing. This means their main and often sole purpose is to evaluate what students have learned over a given period. This in itself is not a bad thing. Yet, in order for testing to be of more universal value, it must also be formative i.e. a method by which teachers and students can assess and develop their teaching and learning strategies respectively. Unfortunately, in the TEYL industry some teachers have little or no experience and/or formal training in matters relating to testing. As a result, these teachers often produce poor quality tests which overemphasise grammar and lexis and therefore affect negatively the learning behaviours of their students (Rixon and Rea-Dickins, 1999 as cited in Carter, n.d.). Such tests are static and not as multifaceted as they should be. Consequently, this type of testing 'seems to be about whether children have learned specific points of language rather than whether they have developed an awareness of the nature of the foreign language' (Rixon and Rea-Dickins, 1999, p.96 as cited in Carter, n.d.).

Rixon (n.d.) also points towards 'validity' and 'visibility' as two important factors that should be taken into account when considering testing. In education generally, there is a lot of academic snobbery in relation to which tests/qualifications are deemed acceptable and which are not. An example of this is the ongoing struggle of online course providers to be accepted as equal partners alongside their classroom counterparts. This snobbery leads to the misguided belief that only paper and pencil tests are of true academic value. Consequently, in the pursuit of perfection, this type of testing often leads, whether directly or indirectly, to undue parental pressure to be the best. Even without parental pressure, this method of testing can be extremely stressful and possibly lead to a loss of love for language learning. Some students, on the other hand, relish this type of challenge. For them, paper and pencil tests can be motivating and success gives them a strong sense of accomplishment.

In many cultures this type of testing is used not only to test the student's abilities and knowledge, but also those of the teacher. I know from personal experience that effort can often mean little or nothing in comparison to results. What ensues is a mentality of good teacher/bad teacher based solely on mathematics. This mentality often leads to the 'dumbing down' of tests. What is even more worrying is that the request or order for such actions frequently comes from those in positions of authority -- those with the most to lose.

Another major issue with paper and pencil tests is that they eat up valuable language learning and production time. Teachers often find themselves in the position where they are forced to teach the exam rather than the language itself. Furthermore, if a student knows that something is not pertinent to the exam, he/she will immediately switch off as that point or activity no longer has any relevance. The point being made here is that traditional paper and pencil tests are not negative per se. Rather, that if they are used as the sole means of testing they can have very negative effects on all concerned. Thus, in order to have a more balanced system of assessment, we must incorporate alternative forms of assessment which are less obvious and less stressful.

Why should we use alternative forms of assessment?

The point has already been made that assessment should be formative as well as summative. Thus, appropriate assessment should be beneficial to both students and teachers. It must attempt to help students in the learning process and promote effective teaching methods and responses. In addition, the development of the whole child through creative and productive activities should be seen as an essential aspect of the assessment process.

Whether we like it or not, testing is a method by which 'intelligence' is measured. Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences has helped to enlighten educationalists on the matter of what intelligence actually is. Traditional paper and pencil tests are based on the commonly accepted two - logical and linguistic. Gardner, however, has identified a further six intelligences, which he believes traditional testing does not accommodate. These are musical, spatial, bodily kinaesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalistic.

How these intelligences develop is linked not only to education but also to culture (Gardner, 1999 as cited in Chipongian, 2000). Thus, our environment has an important role to play in determining the extent to which the various intelligences develop. This aside, it is important that teachers learn more about multiple intelligences and in particular how they can be assessed. Gardner (as cited in Chipongian, 2000) believes that students' intelligences could be assessed in what he refers to as a 'spectrum room'. In this room students participate in a variety of activities which display and allow for the assessment of the whole spectrum of intelligences. Unfortunately, this utopian idea is both impractical and expensive.

A more practical idea is to observe the child doing everyday activities in a classroom setting. Gardner points out that this would be time-consuming but time well spent and a worthwhile investment in the student's academic future. Lazear (as cited in Chipongian, 2000) goes as far as to suggest using games such as 'Twister' in order to assess an individual's bodily kinaesthetic intelligence. This is truly at the opposite end of the spectrum from paper and pencil tests and this idea would be welcomed with open arms by children worldwide. Gardner's and Lazear's ideas may be seen as eccentric by many educationalists. Nevertheless, the point that they are making about the need for testing to be multifaceted is one that cannot be ignored. Paper and pencil tests must be complimented by alternative forms of assessment which evaluate multiple intelligences to a greater extent.

Alternative forms of assessment

Alternative forms of assessment provide us with a way by which we can evaluate students in a more relaxed manner. They are also less stressful for students and attempt to cater to all learning styles and intelligences. What is more, this type of assessment generally uses holistic scoring which focuses on evaluation of the whole child rather than counting mistakes, as is the case with traditional scoring. Shaaban (2001) has highlighted, amongst others, the following types of alternative assessment:

1. Non-verbal responses

As you would expect from the name, this type of assessment does not require the learners to speak. Students could be asked to physically respond to directions given, as is the case with the TPR, whereas older students may be asked to produce drawings to represent something they have read. This is less stressful for students as they connect it more with learning than testing.

2. Role play

This is an activity which we have all used at some point in our teaching careers. It provides us with a simple, time saving and relatively stress-free form of oral assessment. The teacher does not necessarily have to tell the students that they are being assessed. This way the activity is viewed as fun and the language that they produce is less contrived. It can also be used as part of the following type of assessment.

3. Observations/ One to one interviews

The idea behind observations is very similar in style to what Gardner recommends as a more practical approach to measuring multiple intelligences. It involves the teacher observing the child in a number of settings; performing a number of activities. This, as is the case with role-plays, allows the teacher to observe the student using language naturally. These observations are followed up with structured one to one, tutorial style interviews which assess communicative ability as well as general linguistic strengths and weaknesses.

4. Learner's diary

This can be used as a means of communication between the student and the teacher with older children. The student is expected to reflect on what has been taught in class as well as any experiences they have had of using English in real life situations. It is, therefore, a useful tool which gives the teacher an insight into the learners' written ability as well as any problems that they are encountering linguistically or socially.

5. Student portfolios

Portfolios are intended to aid teachers in the evaluation of students' oral and written work by showing a student's progression, or lack of it, over time. A student's oral ability can be assessed through the use of audio and/or video recordings. All drafts of written work must be submitted in order to show improvement and advancement. The scope for these portfolios, however, need not end here. They could also accommodate the aforementioned alternative forms of assessment to include drawings and diary entries. Moreover, used in conjunction with observations and one to one interviews, they would surely prove to be an invaluable form of assessment.

Participation and effort should also be taken into account because I feel that they are important elements of any overall assessment of a child. A child's attempts to improve (even if unsuccessful) should be rewarded in some form.

Finally, it would be wrong not to mention the efforts of the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (UCLES) who have extended in recent years their series of exams to include the Cambridge Young Learners of English (CYLE) tests. Although not an alternative form of assessment; they have made an attempt to bring paper and pencil tests into the 21st century through the use of innovative tasks. McGregor (n.d.) states that their two key aims are to test overall proficiency and encourage/ motivate students to continue learning English. The latter of these two aims is certainly novel and that in itself deserves praise.


It is clear that testing need not be the enemy of language learning. On the contrary, if properly developed and administered, it can be a catalyst for progress and development.

It is true that poorly designed and solely paper and pencil tests can affect students negatively and lead to high levels of anxiety. Furthermore, as they often have little or no formative aspect, the chance for global development is lost. Yet, students will inevitably encounter paper and pencil tests at some time in their young lives so it would be both nave and fruitless to ignore them. It is good to see that UCLES through the introduction of their CYLE tests have taken up the gauntlet of producing better, less threatening paper and pencil tests. Alternative forms of assessment, on the other hand, monitor progress and development over time whilst minimising the level of anxiety felt by the child. In doing so, they also try to accommodate different learning styles and intelligences. Ultimately, it is this form of assessment in collaboration with improved paper and pencil tests which will give us a more well rounded and productive testing system. Both, however, need to be formative and summative in order to aid learners, teachers and the curriculum whilst at the same time accurately grading students.


Carter, H. (n.d.). Teaching young learners. University of Birmingham, Centre for English Language Studies. Retrieved Nov. 26, 2005, from

Chipongian, L. (2000). Multiple intelligences in the classroom- Part 1: 'Assessment of intellectual profiles'. Retrieved Nov. 26, 2005, from

MacGregor, L. (2001). Testing young learners with CYCLE: The new kinds on the block. Shiken: JALT Testing and Evaluation SIG Newsletter, 5(1), 4-6. Retrieved Nov. 26, 2005 from JALT database.

Rixon, S. (n.d.). Assessment of young learners of English. English Language Teacher's Forum. Retrieved Nov. 26, 2005, from

Shaaban, K. (2001). Assessment of young learners. Forum, 39(4), 16. Retrieved Nov. 26. 2005, from U.S. Department of State database.

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