Welcome to the language testing review of 2016! As always, I've selected some of my favourite stories of the year that have reached the international, national or local press. It's become something of an obsession for me to follow the language testing news and make this rather eclectic selction for your New Year delectation. And I always like to start with something amusing, and sometimes rather bizarre. In 2016 there is no shortage of material from which to choose. But I'm going to go for a tale from India.
Strip to your pants, please! This was widely reported, but I'm taking my lead from The Washington Post. Cheating stories are not uncommon. In fact, they're the most common from all the stories I collect, which is why I did this feature on cheating a couple of years back to give readers of this website some idea of just how far back it goes, and how complex it is. But one of the easiest way to cheat is to write possible answers on bits of paper and conceal them around your person. Or indeed to write on your clothes, the inside of the shirt cuff being the most popular. And so it was that the Indian Army decided to have all its recruits strip to their underpants to avoid cheating in its examinations this year. I guess the examination writers just wanted the bare facts.
So let's stick with the theme of cheating for the moment so we can get it out of the way and move on. In China this year cheating on tests has now become a criminal office, punishable by up to 7 years imprisonment, as reported in the Independent from the Official State News. This is not surprising as China has faced a serious problem with cheating over the decades (and in fact centuries) due to the high stakes nature of the tests in the oldest meritocracy in the world. The rather amusing chatty video on the left gives you an idea of the reasons for the cheating and the new laws that crack down on it.
One of the things mentioned in the previous video is the use of drones to tackle electronic cheating. For the first time in 2016 drones were used over test centres to monitor electronic signals that could have come from cheating devices. Watch this video from News Beat World that repoted on this innovation back in June. What cheating devices, you may wonder. Well, there are so many in use now that the cheating industry is constantly adapting in order to avoid the attempts of the authorities to catch them. Just one of these is the pen camera, which you can see in this picture . The pen is used to take a picture of the test paper, which is then transmitted to collaborators outside the test room. They find the answer to the questions and send them back via concealed ear pieces. The test taker can then copy the answers directly onto the test paper or record them on the computer.
It's not all bad out there! In fact, there were some good Gaokao stories this year. One of the most interesting was the report that for the first time in 2016 Braille versions were to be made available, which means that blind and visually impaired students are able to take the crucial college entrance examinations. This is what is technically termed a testing accommodation. These also include extended time, a reader, or the ability to record answers verbally rather than in written form. The purpose is to allow anyone with a disability to demonstrate the ability that the test is designed to measure without the (construct irrelevant) effect of the disability. All reputable examination authorities provide accommodations, and in many countries it is a legal requirement. One of the most famous pieces of legislation regarding accommodations is the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is worth reading this to see just what disabilities test providers should cater for when designing their tests. Incorporating accommodations into the initial design is called "Universal Design".
There has also been a lot of discussion about the content of the test. The video on the left, produced in the United States, looks at the kinds of questions on the test, and what kinds of problems the test questions might pose. CNN even produced a short Gaokao quiz that you might like to take. From time to time the producers of tests go through a period of crisis when they wonder how they can change the test and its content to better match the expectations and aspirations of the test takers and the larger stakeholder community.
Test revision costs a great deal of money in design and research, and there are also issues of practicality. So revision is undertaken only rarely, and then with great caution. But 2016 saw a real call for change in these tests to encourage more creativity and less "cramming". While the video implies that one of the reasons for change is competition with other educational systems, there is also a genuine concern to improve testing systems for the benefit of the population ar large. The video on the right records some of the discussions going on. All very healthy!
Brexit Means Brexit One of the biggest shocks of 2016 was the British decision to leave the European Union. Even "brexeteers" were taken completely by surprise at the results of the poll. But there is also a language testing story here too. Within days the French announced that when the British finally leave they will push for English to be removed as an official language of the EU, and they will impose new tests of French as a foreign language on all British expats living in France, and all British employees of companies operating in France. This would be enforced by the mobile patrols of the Academie Francaise Controle - or the language police! Language testing has always been used for political ends in the European Union and the British exit seems to have sparked yet another era in political language policy.
France should be careful though. In 2016 Denmark introduced new tests of Danish for all foreign workers living in Denmark and imposed them retroactively. All such measures are surrogates for immigration policies that are difficult to impose otherwise in a continent that claims to uphold the freedom of movement of peoples to seek employment in any country. But all countries use language tests in this way. In Denmark, as elsewhere, such policies lead to legal challenges.
Public Transport While governments around the world attempt to introduce language tests for taxi drivers - the latest bring the introduction of English language tests for private taxi drivers in the United Kingdom - the authorities in India have introduced tests of Marathi for Rickshaw drivers wishing to operate in the Mumbai metropolitan area. An interesting story, not only because of the link made between language competence and the ability to do a job where language proficiency is incidental to the key skill of driving, but also because the Indian constitution states that no citizen should be discriminated against on the grounds of language. If there is a legal challenge to the use of the tests it will be interesting to see what arguments are presented on both sides.
The Triangle We are once again reminded that language testing and educational assessment is a very large business. Cambridge Assessment has outgrown its offices in Hills Road and is building a new complex called The Triangle, to which it is due to move its operation shortly. I have to say that it looks like a fantastic facility, and I for one hope I get an invitation to look it over during 2017!
The Test Prep Rally and the Firebreathing Stunt And I leave you with another bizarre story. A school in Florida held a test prep rally (yes, indeed) to whip up enthusiasm for standardized testing, complete with cheerleaders and circus acts. Well, you have to admit it is difficult to get school-aged learners fired up about taking a multiple choice test. And to really engage them you need - yes, a fire breather! But unfortunately he set himself and the school on fire. This amazing story (with a short video) is also reported by the Washington Post, the very same newspaper from which my first story came. The journalists of the Washington Post seem to have an eye for the bizarre testing story! So I'll be closely following the Post during 2017!
If you've enjoyed my rather quirky selection of the year's testing stories, watch out for the next yearly review! But you've got a whole 12 months to wait.