It has long been asserted that language tests may have a great influence both on the learner and on the teacher. On the one hand, students get nervous and worried about the exams they are going to take, on the other hand, teachers, methodologists or language centres spend much time on trying to help their students get ready for the test.
The following statement found in Pearson, 1988, clearly proclaims the idea of test influences: “Public examinations influence the attitudes, and motivation of teachers, learners and parents”. All these things bring us to one important conclusion, that tests can have some effect, either positive or negative, on teaching and learning. In literature this process is defined as a washback effect.
The effect of tests on learning and teaching as a very important issue in the learning process has been discussed since the early 19th century. Starting from the 1980s, many pieces of research have been done on the washback. Since students began to be more interested in the results of the test, because of the schools, universities, funding and free education, test preparation became more important.
Elena Shohamy, a professor of Language Education at the School of Education, Tel Aviv University, in one of her articles on the language testing and assessment contrasts school tests and external tests. She notes that external tests have become the most powerful devices, capable of changing and prescribing the behaviour of those affected by their results – administrators, teachers and students. Central agencies and decision-makers, aware of the authoritative power of external tests, have often used them to impose new curricula, textbooks and teaching methods. Thus external tests are currently used to motivate students to study, teachers to teach, and principals to modify the curriculum. The use of external tests as a device for affecting the educational process is often referred to as the washback effect or measurement-driven instruction. (Shohamy, 1993, p. 186).
Tests are designed with the help of multiple-choice questions and focusing on psychometric validity. However, not all tests include necessary tasks to check the learner’s knowledge and their skills. Whereas some tests turn out to be more sophisticated than the teaching program. Researches, done in English language assessment, have proven that washback can influence different individuals in different ways. As far as teachers are concerned, they respond to test changes and classroom assessments differently as well. Washback effects can be totally different, positive or negative, indirect or unpredictable. Positive washback refers to expected test effects. For example, a test may motivate students to study more and better. It may help them to see what they are bad at, what they should pay attention to. Negative washback refers to the unpredictable and harmful consequences of a test. For example, test preparation may take quite a lot of time at the expense of other activities like pair work, discussions or negotiations. Washback from tests can involve individual teachers and students as well as whole classes and programs. Click here for an example of positive washback in action.
Caroline Gips in her book “Beyond testing: Towards a theory of educational assessment” analyzes in detail different aspects of the washback effect. Initially, the attention of researchers was drawn to the influence exerted by tests on what is taught, that is, on the content of instruction, and also on how to teach, that is, on the teaching methodology. Frederiksen wrote that any test is likely to affect the behaviour of students and teachers, provided that they know about the test in advance. He explained this by the fact that students are eager to perform the test well, and teachers are interested in their students to pass it successfully. Therefore, there is a tendency to increase in time and effort spent on learning what the tests measure. Since learning time is limited, efforts to study material that is not measured by tests are reduced. As a result, tests become a curricular magnet, and other important skills that are not included in the tests are neglected and dropped out of the learning content.
However, not all researchers believed that washback has an only negative impact. So, Popham described its positive impact on the concept of measurement-driven instruction (MDI). MDI implied the impact of a test on a training program which should be designed to help learners successfully complete this test. As for teachers, they try to prepare the curriculum according to the requirements of the final test. However, this can have a positive effect only on low-level students in primary school, where the focus is on basic skills. But when it comes to cognitive skills such as critical thinking or problem-solving, tests can have a negative washback.
As can be seen from the article, we as teachers should be very careful while preparing our students for the tests, not to have a negative washback. Hence, we should also bear in our minds, that tests check learner’s knowledge, but sometimes at the expense of other activities. To avoid it, make sure you have selected a right and effective test, and that you don’t neglect other spheres of language learning in the ESL classroom.