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Second Language Assessment and Testing

Critically analysing an internationally established proficiency test

I. Introduction

The number of people willing to study in English speaking countries has grown
steadily in the last decades. According to the Australian Department of Education
and Training (2016), in 2015 there were 645,185 students who enrolled across the
wide range of courses that the different Australian educational providers offer. In
order to access to the Australian educational organizations, especially tertiary
institutions, international candidates are required to provide a trustful evidence of
their language abilities and competence. In that scenario, language proficiency
tests play a key role, being the stepping stone which guarantee, to some extent, a
reasonable academic performance from the students. The chosen proficiency test
to be analised in this report is IELTS, considering 3 different criteria, backwash,
validity and reliability.

I.1. IELTS background information

Nowadays, IELTS (International English Language Testing System) is one of the


most widely known proficiency test. In countries such as Australia is recognized by
the government as well as different educational organizations. It measures the
language ability of test-takers who are willing to migrate to an English speaking
country in order to work or study (IELTS handbook, 2007). The test is given in two
modalities, academic and general training. It is divided into four modules which
assess the 4 English macro skills, that is, reading, listening, speaking and writing.
The overall band score is calculated as an average of each module, reaching a
minimum score of 1 (non user) and a maximum of 9 (expert user) (IELTS
handbook, 2007).
II. Critical analysis of an international proficiency test

II.1. Backwash

Backwash is a term which has become significantly important in the educational


field in the recent years (Cheng, Wantanabe, & Curtis,2004). In relation to
large-scale tests, backwash refers to the impact whether positive or negative
that these tests have on learners as well as teachers. It encompasses mostly
the process before and after a test is given. (Shohamy, 1993; Bailey, 1996;
Brown, 2000; Hughes, 2013).

Rather than arguing whether backwash has a negative or a positive influence


on IELTS test, it can be said that the impact of it, it will depend on the
stakeholders’ understanding of its effects, in relation to the incorporation of
different strategies to better cope the preparation and to attempt to a successful
completion of the test (Bailey,1996; Cheng et al., 2004). Therefore, in order to
obtain benefits from IELTS backwash and avoid harmful effects on the teaching
practices as well as on the learning outcomes, it is necessary to utilize the test
preparation and posttest program properly. For example, prior to the test
teachers as much as test-takers need to work without pressure of time or
possibility of failure (Shohamy, 1993) to understand and to get to know the test
format better. Additionally, it is important that the teaching practices do not
become absolutely control by the test (Harmer, 2007). However, candidates
have to get used to the format to perform successfully (Hughes, 2013). On the
other hand, to go further in the improvement of IELTS backwash in the post-test
process stakeholders should comment and discus on their test performance,
identifying their strengths and weaknesses to validate the test in terms of
teaching and learning performance (Brown, 2000), influencing greatly test
validity.

II.2. Validity

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A valid test is the one that fully assesses what is planned to be assessed.
becoming crucially important at the moment of making decisions regarding the
contents, construction and scoring of the test (Brown, 1996, 2000; Harmer,
2007; Hughes, 2013).

Bearing in mind the idea that there is “no absolute and objective measure of
validity” (Brown, 2000 p. 387). It can be said that IELTS test evidences a high
validity in its process of construction, contents and scoring. Being unbiased
towards the great variety of potential test takers, regarding their cultural
background, nationality, gender, etc. (IELTS webpage, 2016). Additionally,
IELTS organization (2016) provides information of their different and ongoing
processes of validation which correlate with consistent results that the test has
around the world. Knowing that IELTS test developers have potentially utilize
appropriate aspects of the language domain in the construction of the test, to
make it as valid as possible, it results very difficult to observe negative aspects
in terms of contents and test structure. However, from the predictability point of
view, the test does not absolutely guarantee that a well-marked test taker will
successfully perform in the future, taking in consideration some other factors
such as motivation (Brown, 1996; Dooey & Oliver, 2002; Shohamy, 1993). In
general terms, IELTS test claims validity on its capacity to measure what has
been already established as standardized criteria of what is considered to be
proficient in language usage.

II.3. Reliability

The reliability of a test lies on the capacity that it has to be regular in terms of
score, which is expected to be similar every time the test is taken (Brown, 1996;
2000; Harmer, 2007; Hughes, 2013).

IELTS reliability has many aspects that should be considerate for its analysis.
For example, in terms of the administration the test can be seen as impractical,
because the process of sitting it is too long, usually two days, what might cause
inconsistent results (Brown, 2000; Harmer, 2007). However, the organizations
that administer the test have reported that despite the variations that implies
taking the test in different days, there is no much impact on the reliability
coefficient (IELTS webpage, 2016), which basically refers to the variants that
are likely to affect the consistent measurements of the results (Brown,2000;

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Hughes, 2013). Another aspect that might impact on IELTS reliability is the fact
that two of the four modules, speaking and writing, are scored subjectively.
Therefore, in order to avoid any underestimation of the scoring strategies,
IELTS has assigned two raters, whose judgements are aligned with the
different scoring instruments they use to mark each module (IELTS webpage,
2016). Furthermore, IELTS has incorporated some other components to be
recognized as reliable test, such as allowing candidates to know the item
formats in every module, providing very clear instructions to avoid
misunderstandings, training scorers and providing a very detailed marking
criteria in each subtest (Hughes, 2013).

III. Conclusion

To conclude, it can be said that nowadays the International English Language


Testing System (IELTS) is one of the most relevant and important language
proficiency test in the world, being required to enter to most Australian
universities. It is also considered to have a high level of reliability and validity as it
tests the four English skills, while other tests do not. Additionally, it is periodically
tested to prove fairness and quality. In terms of backwash, which might be
beneficial or detrimental, is likely to affect its reliability as much as its validity,
encouraging or inhibiting the stakeholders in the pursuit of the main objectives of
the test. Finally, in order to have a comprehensive and better understanding of the
terms backwash, validity and reliability in relation to the pros and cons of the
IELTS test, deeply and further research is needed.

IV. References

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Bailey, K. (1996). Working for washback: a review of the washback concept in
language testing. Language Testing, 13(3), 257-279.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/026553229601300303

Brown, H.D. (2000). Principles of language learning and teaching. White Plains, NY:
Longman.

Brown, H.D. (1996). Testing in language programs. Upper Saddle River, N.J.:
Prentice Hall Regents.

Cheng, L., Watanabe, Y., & Curtis, A. (2004). Washback in language testing.
Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Department of Education and Training | australia.gov.au. (2016). Australia.gov.au.


Retrieved 26 August 2016, from
http://www.australia.gov.au/directories/australia/education

Dooey, P. & Oliver, R. (2002). An Investigation into the predictive validity of the IELTS
Test as an indicator of future academic success. AMEP Research Centre.
Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/1959.14/322527

Harmer, J. (2007). The practice of English language teaching. Harlow, England:


Pearson Longman.

Hughes, A. (2013). Testing for language teachers (2 nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge


University Press.

IELTS. (2007). International English language testing system handbook, UCLES.


Retrieved 22 August 2016, from https://www.ielts.org/

IELTS. (2016). English Language Test Homepage. Retrieved 22 August 2016, from
https://www.ielts.org/

Shohamy, E. (1993). The power of tests. Washington, DC: The National Foreign
Language Center.