Assessing the assessment

Sponsored: Helen Wood, head of school partnerships at Password English Language Testing, discusses issues schools need to consider when evaluating online entrance tests for EAL learners

Back in January I ran a CPD webinar with COBIS entitled Reliable Online Admissions Testing, which focused on the language required for success in the socio-academic context of English medium instruction. In it, I considered the importance of validity, reliability and security when introducing any form of high-stakes assessment, such as an admissions test for international pupils.

In feedback gathered by COBIS, most of the participants rated the webinar as excellent and reported they would recommend it to a colleague. Given those positive reviews, here is a quick summary for anyone also currently involved in evaluating potential online entrance tests for their own school.

Second language development can be classified in two ways. Initially, learners acquire what are called basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS). This early language development is primarily based on speaking and listening skills and within two to five years an EAL learner may appear as ‘fluent’ as a native speaker.

However, it takes considerably longer (on average seven years) for EAL learners to achieve cognitive academic linguistic proficiency (CALP), even in an immersive context. This is because becoming fully biliterate/bilingual requires equally strong skills in speaking, listening, reading and writing.

Critically, that means testing the English language skills of a pupil entering English medium instruction needs a tool appropriate to the task. Assessments that are designed for native speakers are unsuitable because an EAL pupil’s results on any such standardised test will be dependent on their linguistic proficiency at the time of taking it. On the other hand, the most commonly used online English language tests focus on content and activities which relate to day-to-day communication.

So, while such general English placement tests might quickly tell you how well a prospective pupil will settle socially at school, they will not give you an accurate insight into whether the individual will thrive academically, nor how much English language support might be necessary to allow them to reach their true potential. Yet this is vital information.

Used by over 300 schools, colleges and universities worldwide, Password tests are a trusted name in assessment of academic English language

EAL learners who achieve academic linguistic proficiency by the time they hit exam years tend to out-perform native speakers in their GCSEs, but for those who do not, research tells us the attainment penalty is severe. With all that in mind, it is tempting to fall back on creating an in-house test, designed by your own team of EAL experts.

However, that throws up issues not just relating to the reliability of test content if not thoroughly piloted, but also around security. A test becomes vulnerable to cheating the moment it comes in the form of a PDF attachment, especially in the current circumstances, where the option of using British Council offices and staff for invigilation purposes is not available.

So, when evaluating the assessment options for your prospective EAL learners, here are three questions to ask:

1. Who was the test designed for? (eg native or non-native users of English)
2. What was the purpose of the test? (eg to assess general or academic English)
3. How secure is the test? (eg how vulnerable is the test to malpractice).

Password Pupil English tests were designed to provide accurate information on prospective international pupils’ academic linguistic proficiency.

Based on research by world-leading academics in the field of English language learning and assessments, and delivered online using a secure browser and an enormous database of questions from which each test is uniquely generated, they provide schools with an own-branded test that is fit for purpose. Our academic management constantly review test data and our qualified markers are experienced at spotting plagiarism.

Our friendly support team provide free training for schools and their trusted agents, so that ‘at home’ testing can be used with the protection of remote invigilation while the pandemic restricts test-taking in person.

Used by over 300 schools, colleges and universities worldwide, Password tests are a trusted name in assessment of academic English language. If you want to put our assessments to the test, get in touch for a demonstration.



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