Do Language Tests Indicate Level?

One thing that always irked me about the education industry is the emphasis they place on tests. So many people think a number is the determiner of your fate.  If you score high enough you must have the skills necessary to get the job done. If you fail, clearly you don’t know what you are doing. A lot of the times this simply is not true, especially when we look at foreign language tests.


While yes, I understand we need to have a way to “test” the skill level people have, a lot of the time the tests are done in a way that does not translate well to the real world. I personally have taken foreign language tests and have done poorly compared to other students despite the fact that my language skills were superior. Even the teacher thought it was weird. But again, that’s because the test don’t often go along with reality.


I see this in Taiwan all the time. Someone scores high on an English test, getting all sorts of praise from peers for being so good at English.  Yet as soon as they try to speak English, the truth of their skill comes out. Usually they can’t get the job done to save their life. I’ve come across people like this and almost always have to rely on my Chinese when talking to them.


On the other hand, I’ve seen students with poor test scores yet they are able to have conversations with me compared to kids with better grades. So much for test scores.


You see, the problem is, when I am talking to someone, I don’t care if they accidentally say “I go store now.” Even though it’s not proper English, I still understand it just fine. But of course, on the test it’s a wrong answer. We focus too much on a perfect response rather than getting the message across.


Think about, how many times have you said something that was grammatically incorrect in your mother tongue? Probably lots of times. Now how many times has this screwed up your conversation preventing you from being understood? Probably a very small percentage of the time.  So while you yourself mess up some grammar, you are still understood no problem.


Because the funny thing is, a lot of the kids that do the best on the multiple-choice grammar or fill in the blank questions, always mess up the grammar when writing an essay or talking. Our tests focus on things that don’t matter in terms of usage.


Tests aren’t going away anytime soon, but they need to change. So, what do our tests need to focus on?  They need to focus on communication first and foremost. If the grammar is a little weird, that’s okay. As long as we understand what the person is trying to say and can say it’s without taking seven years, that is what matters most. Give extra style points for correct grammar.


Even in my own experience with Chinese, I do bad when it comes to tests, yet I don’t have many problems when it comes to the daily things I run into, teaching kids grammar in Chinese, or any other time I need Chinese. Now some classmates of mine had better grades than me, but weren’t used to using any of what they learned. The tests we took didn’t reflect this at all because they didn’t have anything built into them to check this.


So if you don’t score well on a language test, don’t sweat it. Often times the tests won’t accurately indicate if you actually have language skills. Gauge it by the content of the conversations you have with people and how easy it is for you to converse with different topics. Some topics you will converse in more easily than others, but as long as it gets easier each time, that’s all that matters.


What improvements do you think foreign language tests need?



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