Thursday, September 27, 2007

Main Characteristics of different Types of Tests, and Their Significance
By Fazal Ali Butt

Teaching and testing both are so closely interrelated that it is almost impossible to carry on in either field without being concerned with the other. The correlation between the two, Lado (1964) mentioned, can be measured by the fact how these two effect each other. Tests may be constructed primarily as devices to reinforce learning and to motivate the students or primarily as a means of assessing the students’ performance in the language. In the former case, the test is geared to the teaching that has taken place, while in the latter case the teaching is often geared largely to the tests. This paper attempts to scrutinize the effects of tests on teaching and learning and assess the implication of these tests in public sector colleges while briefly discussing the main characteristics of different kinds of tests, e.g. placement, proficiency, and achievement tests.

Classification and Main Characteristics of Different kinds of Tests

There is some confusion regarding the terminology used to denote the different types of language tests in use. Most test specialists however agree on the following broad divisions: placement, achievement and proficiency tests.

(i) Placement Tests

Placement test, as their name suggests, are intended to provide information that will help to place students at the stage (or in the part) of the teaching programme most appropriate to their abilities. Typically they are used to assign students to classes at different levels. Placement tests can be bought, but this is to be recommended only when the institution concerned is sure that the test being considered suits its particular teaching programme .No one placement test will work for every institution and the initial assumption about any test that is commercially available must be that it will not work well. One possible exception is placement test designed for use by language schools, where the similarity of popular text books used in them means that the schools’ teaching programmes also tend to resemble each other.

The placement tests that are most successful, Cohen (1980) explains, are those constructed for particular situations. They depend on the identification of the key feature at different levels of teaching in the institution. They are tailor-made rather then bought of f the peg. This usually means that they have been produced ‘in house’. The work that goes into their construction is rewarded by the saving in time and effort through accurate placement.

(ii) Achievement Tests

In contrast to proficiency tests, achievement tests are directly related to language courses, their purpose being to establish how successful individual students, groups of students, or the courses themselves have been in achieving objectives. They are, Harris (1969) classifies, of two kinds: Final achievement tests and Progress achievement tests.

Final achievement tests are those administered at the end of the course of study. They may be written and administered by ministries of education, official examining boards, or by members of teaching institutions. Clearly the content of these tests must be related to the courses with which they are concerned, but the nature of this relationship is a matter of disagreement amongst language testers.

Progress achievement tests, as their name suggests, are intended to measure the progress that students are making. They contribute to formative assessment. Since progress’ is towards the achievement of course objectives, these tests, too, should relate to objectives, but how? One way of measuring progress would be repeatedly to administer final achievement tests, the (hopefully) increasing scores indicating the progress made. This is not really feasible, particularly in the early stages of a course. The low scores obtained would be discouraging to students and quite possibly to their teachers. The alternative is to establish a series of well-defined short-term objectives. These should make a clear progression towards the final achievement test based on course objectives. Then if the syllabus and teaching are appropriate to these objectives, progress tests based on short-term objectives will fit well with what has been taught. If not, there will be pressure to create a better fit. If it is the syllabus that is at fault, it is the tester’s responsibility to make clear that it is there that change is needed, not in the tests.

(iii) Proficiency Tests

Whereas an achievement test looks back on what should have been learnt, the proficiency test looks forward, defining a student’s language proficiency with reference to a particular task which he or she will be required to perform. Proficiency tests are in no way related to any syllabus or teaching programme; indeed, many proficiency tests are intended for students from several different schools, countries and even languages backgrounds. The proficiency test is concerned simply with measuring a student’s control of the language in the light of what he or she will be expected to do with it in the future performance of a particular task. Does the student know enough English, for example, to follow a certain university or college course given in the medium of English? Does the student know enough English in order to function efficiently in a particular type of employment? “The proficiency test is thus concerned with measuring not general attainment but specific skills in the light of the language demands made later on the student by a future course of study or job.” Harrison (1983)

The Implications of These Tests in Public-Sector Colleges

The most prominent consequence of testing is its impact on teaching named as BACKWASH effect. It can be beneficial or harmful both. In public sector schools/colleges the kinds of tests most frequently used are: PLACEMENT tests and ACHEIVEMENT tests. Of the two, the latter one is used more often by education boards at the end of the year to promote students from one class to the next. In this sense it is the Final achievement test, whereas, the former one is used by the admission committees to grant admission in a particular course or class. Thus, it functions more like an Entry test.
Proficiency test is hardly ever used and that too, by teachers who are interested in measuring the language level of their students.

The way the final achievement tests are used to promote the students to the higher classes do not test the language (command over language) instead it tests students’ memory – how much do they remember and to what extent can they reproduce? To succeed in such test do not mean that students have learnt something, but it merely that s/he has been simply able perform well in the test s/he has taken. The kind of reading comprehension text (the meaning less and irrelevant bits of information) given in the test papers measures a skill which is more closely associated with examination and answering techniques than with the ability to read or scan in order to extract specific information for a particular purpose. Since these tests do not demand higher level of understanding from students, they do not make much effort to go beyond what will be probably asked in the exams. It is not only on the part of students that they do not go an extra mile to acquire sound understanding of the reading passages, the teachers too take advantage of this phenomenon and only teach students what the test paper may ask. The saddest part of the story is that the test papers are, to a large extent, predictable. If one takes last five years’ test papers and have a casual look at it, he or she will soon discover the questions most frequently re-occurring in the papers. Hence, if s/he is intelligent enough and prepares for these questions, there are great chances of success in the exam. There are no standard tests available in my teaching context and test scores are never ever interpreted.

There is dearth of qualified teachers who know the relationship between teaching and testing. The harmful backwash effect is destroying our education system. “The essay translation approach”, as Heaton (1975) calls this method of testing we use, has produced a new lot of ignorant educated people who can only and only consume and can never produce anything new. How tests can be exploited to teach and motivate learners, Hughes (2003) concludes, to attain beneficial backwash effect and accomplish desirable qualities of tests: validity, reliability, and practicality can be efficiently applied in situation like ours. Teachers can be motivated and encouraged to work in this direction, if we want an educated and English language proficient people who can fulfill the demands of national and international forums.


Cohen, A. D. (1980). Testing language ability in the classroom. Massachusetts: Newbury
Green, J. A. (1975). Teacher-made tests. New York: Harper and Row.
Harris, D. P. (1969). Testing English as a second language. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Harrison, A. (1983). A language testing handbook. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Heaton, J. b. (1975). Writing English language tests. London: Longman.
Hughes, A. (2003). Testing for language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Lado, R. (1964). Language testing: the construction and use of foreign language tests.
London: Longman.

About author:

Mr. Fazal Ali Butt has a master’s degree in English Literature and has done a certificate course (ICELT) in English Language Teaching from Cambridge University, England. Recently, he is enrolled in an Advanced Diploma Programme in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (ADP TEFL) in Aga Khan University, Karachi. He has taught in Army Public School Hyderabad, and now he is associated with Pakistan Navy as civilian education officer for five years.

He can be contacted at 0334-3748570 or mailed at: R- 44 – 45, Gulshan-e-Tayyabi, Malir city, Near Maryam Buttla hospital, Jama Milia road, Karachi.
E-mail: fazal.butt