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Are tests obstacles to teaching English?
by Aviva Shapiro


The writer talks about the current use of testing in Israel, which may be an obstacle to learning; as well as test anxiety, how to prepare students for tests, and how to prepare better tests, and the use of alterative assessment.


Tests, Assessment. . . We hear these words every day at school. Whether a student asks when the next test is, or the principal gives us the 'test schedule, it is always out there.

In my opinion, tests may be obstacles to how we teach. Why? Because, like it or not, we are held accountable as teachers by the scores our students produce on tests, and, also for the "the ultimate test", the Bagrut. The higher our pupils' scores, the 'better' teachers we are judged to be. Is this really true.?? Maybe partly, but not necessarily. Unfortunately, we have no choice but to adapt ourselves to our environment and we end up, to some extent, teaching for or towards tests.

Test Anxiety

Tests are also obstacles for many of our students who suffer from test anxiety. They, too, know that they are being judged by the numbers they achieve. This often leads to high stress which then might lead to either failure on tests or cheating in order not to fail. . Since students are taught from an early age that success equals a high number (a grade) , they become extremely anxious at the mention of a test.

We, as teachers, can help our students overcome test anxiety in a variety of ways.

First we need to take the pressure off the importance of a test. A test should be ONLY one way we assess our pupils. By letting them know this, and letting them know that their test grades are only a small part of their grade (as I hope that they are ), we can alleviate some of the pressure.

Another way to alleviate the stress is to make sure kids are prepared for the test we give. This can be done by giving them a practice test, which resembles the real test, and then checking it with them. We must teach our pupils the type of questions they will encounter on our tests. Working in class in one way and then testing them in another is both bad practice and a way to ensure failure of our students. By showing them a practice test before hand they learn to understand what is expected . This builds confidence, reviews the material and lessens the stress of the unknown. Perhaps this is why many students who retake different bagrut modules do better the second time around: they know what they need to do whereas the first time, even with lots of practice in class they haven't yet seen the "Real McCoy".

Another important job we teachers need to take upon ourselves is teaching our students how to study. Teachers may be surprised to learn that many of our students either don't study at all (as they don't know how) or they study incorrectly. They need to be taught effective ways to study.

In order to retain what has been taught, it is not enough to just read over the material. In English, since there usually isn't "material" to read (unless it's a test on a story, although I prefer other ways of assessing literature) this is less of a problem. However, our pupils need to know that only by doing something while studying will they remember: This might mean answering practice questions, doing exercises etc...

Teachers have to take their students' claims of test anxiety seriously. If we want them to succeed then we need to be aware of their fears and understand why they have them

You can find out more ways to deal with test anxiety :
Test Anxiety, by Susan Black

One reason they have these fears is because tests are such a big part of how our society judges them. Unfortunately tests become obstacles which sometimes leave our students feeling unable to cope, so we should try and give them some tools which will enable them to cope. These tools are the abovementioned methods of practice tests, tips on how to study and even relaxation tips mentioned in the article.

We can also help our students overcome the obstacle of test anxiety by changing how we view tests We need to overcome our fear of being judged as good teachers just by our pupils' scores and keep teaching English using as many different ways of assessment as we can. .

Preparing useful and fair tests

It is unlikely that in the near future we can stop testing or using tests as one way of assessing our pupils, unless we drastically change the educational system and society. Therefore, we should try to use tests only when necessary. Thus, we need to change how we incorporate them into classroom practice.

How can we make up a good test? Making up fair tests is a real skill which I fear many teachers don't have. For example, having students memorize verbs without knowing how or when to use them or, even worse, what they mean, is inexcusable. I suggest that teachers work together when making up tests. and try to remember that less is often more. A pure grammar test of 50 fill-in exercises (YES , I have seen these kinds of tests and been upset ) do not show what our students know and certainly do not teach our students how to use the language. When will anyone ever ask them fill in blank spaces with the correct form of the word? . If the student isn't taught how to transfer his/her knowledge of tenses to correct usage in speaking and writing, nothing will have been learned. I personally have found that giving short 15 minutes quizzes every other week or so are much more effective and cause much less stress.

Alternatives to traditional testing:

Fortunately, in English, we do have quite a few alternative ways of assessing our students--our pupils must learn that these alternatives are just as important-- if not more important-- than the tests we occasionally use. For instance, the introduction of research projects has added a dimension to the way we teach and assess our pupils.

Projects: Regrettably, many teachers still feel that doing projects is either not a valid way of teaching or see them as obstacles. This may be due to the fact that in many cases teachers don't have the proper facilities at their schools. However, even with enough computers and enough hours in the computer rooms, some teachers find doing projects very challenging and even frightening. Perhaps this is due in part to their fear of relinquishing the control they have in a frontally-taught lesson.

While working on projects, students have to be taught how to take responsibility for their own learning.

These obstacles can be overcome if teachers believe that students do learn from this type of classroom practice. Furthermore, the teacher needs to understand that by writing a research project , and presenting it orally, the student is learning how to think for himself and learning how to assess himself: This self-assessment (using rubrics) is a very important skill which all people need in life. As envisioned by the English Curriculum, self-assessment (rubrics) may be used for writing, and for group work, and various other activities and might just help some students overcome test anxiety, Just by knowing that tests are NOT the only way they will be assessed and by being able to assess themselves and correct themselves.


"Many things students learn simply cannot be tested with a paper-and-pencil test. In a high-quality education, students conduct science experiments, solve real-world math problems, write research papers, read and analyze novels and stories, deliver oral presentations, evaluate and synthesize information from a variety of fields, and apply their learning to new situations. In fact, standardized tests largely cannot evaluate these important kinds of learning. If instruction focuses on the test, students will not learn these skills, which are needed for success in college and in life "
" The dangerous consequences of high-stakes testing." By Monty Neill (February 2003 American School Board Journal)

While doing research for this article, I wasn't really surprised to find so much material on the problems associated with standardized testing. This interested me in that our society, in Israel, is still very much dependent on these types of exams. (Bagrut, Psychometric..etc.) Our entire educational system is based on assessing our students by a final 'Bagrut' exam whether it be in history, literature or English.

I believe that in certain ways, the Bagrut exam is an obstacle to our being able to teach English. Why? Simply because too much emphasis is put on the results of this exam. Hopefully most of us teach literature, and poetry, and have our students prepare research projects where they are taught how to write correctly and then required to give oral presentations. However, we are often frustrated by students who think that all they need is to practice reading comprehension-but we can't blame the students! Why are we frustrated by them? Why are they not to be blamed? Because they live within a system and society which assesses them mostly by grades. Our society, like many other societies today, evaluates its populations by numbers. And our students and their parents know this. Thus the pressure on us.

So what does this mean for us teaching English in Israel? We don't presently have a choice whether to teach for the Bagrut. But we do have a choice as to how we go about doing it. We need to keep sight of our ultimate goal, which should be to educate our students to think for themselves, to be able to use English in their lives and to be more well rounded, culturally-minded people of the world.

In short, tests and assessment of our pupils might be seen as obstacles to some of us. Yet if we re-evaluate the way we use them, there are ways to work with our students and teach them how to live in today's world of numbers while at the same time learning to think for themselves. So use tests, but remember--always remember-- tests are certainly not the only true measure of success.

"The test of a good teacher is not how many questions he can ask his pupils that they will answer readily, but how many questions he inspires them to ask him which he finds it hard to answer"
~~ Alice Wellington Rollins

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