Why do teachers assess English the way they do?

I’ve been based in Slovenia for a few years now and regularly come across examples of how English is assessed in primary schools. I don’t know with empirical certainty how typical what I see is but I’m tempted to believe that it is simply because the same kinds of test items and approaches to marking keep on appearing. Here’s one example.

In it’s favour, the exercise uses a visual to stimulate a response. But what’s frustrating is the severity with which it is marked; numbers 2 and 3 were awarded 0 marks because of spelling mistakes while, if we accept one/a as possible alternatives, the half mark deducted on the final item also seems severe.  The fifth item also received 0, but this is justified given the grammar and spelling mistakes. My overall reaction to this example is that the marking is excessively harsh.

Here’s another one:

It’s useful for students to know the names of cities and countries in English. But this exercise is as much a test of general knowledge as it is of English. And again, while the student left a) and d) blank (the teacher filled these in while marking), the teacher’s decision not to award anything for b (‘Japan’) is harsh.

One final example:

This exercise required students to complete the sentences with a possessive adjective. I’m interested in items b, f and g. These were all marked wrong but one can imagine contexts where they would be meaningful and are not technically grammatically incorrect. The problem here is poor test design (lack of clear context) and the teacher not considering anything beyond the obvious answers.

I’m not suggesting that form-focused exercises which reward accuracy are not of value – of course they have a role to play. But it is problematic when these are the recurrent exercises students encounter in tests. Decontextualised examples, assessing general knowledge, harsh marking, and not rewarding unusual but grammatically correct answers all add to this problematic situation. Learning English is thus reduced to knowing how to complete discrete-item exercises of this kind. Such items are most obvious in written tests, but a fair amount of oral testing also takes place and I’ve heard of cases where primary school students are, for example, asked to explain (in their own language) when the present continuous or some other grammatical form is used. English tests can thus become an opportunity not for students to show what they know but for teachers to highlight what children do not. This whole approach to testing seems patently wrong to me (for one it puts children off English), so I am left with several questions:

  • Why do teachers test their students in this way?
  • Is it because they genuinely believe that accuracy and explicit grammatical knowledge are what primary students need most?
  • What levels of assessment literacy do primary school teachers of English have? The British Council’s Teacher Assessment Literacy project may be useful here, including the video on assessing young learners.
  • What  other factors shape teachers’ assessment practices? (for a list, see an earlier blog on teaching grammar)?
  • How common are the above approaches to the classroom testing of English in Slovenia and in primary schools elsewhere?
  • How can teachers be encouraged to reflect on and review such practices?

It would be great to hear what primary school teachers of English in Slovenia think and to hear about experiences elsewhere too.

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4 Responses to Why do teachers assess English the way they do?

  1. Bernadette Foo says:

    I do agree with the comments you made on the discrete item tests. Context is what gives the words n sentences meaning. Yes, the marking was harsh in the samples shown. I think language teaches have to consider the context in which the words/sentences are used.

    Thanks for sharing the experience in Slovenia.

  2. Marina Gonzalez says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on tjisnissue. I can see the same focus in primary school testing in my country and it is so ingrained, it will be difficult to change.

    • Simon Borg says:

      Hello Marina. Which country do you work in? Are teachers of English given any support to help them assess children there?

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