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EXAMINING IN ENGLISH

EXAMINING IN ENGLISH The formal testing of a student's command of English, usually in an educational institution or through a public system of evaluation and certification. Such testing dates from the mid-18c, when three necessary prior conditions had been fulfilled: (1) The standard language was increasingly widely taught in schools and had begun to be used as a vehicle for the testing of all school subjects. (2) A new educational tradition had developed, associated with the manufacturing and mercantile classes of Britain and America, an alternative to traditional LATIN-medium or Latin-based education. (3) A network of institutions and administrators had begun to spread: for example, in Britain the Dissenting Academies and the Royal Society of Arts, which was founded in 1754 and conducted examinations in English before 1800.

British examinations

By the mid-19c, public examinations had become necessary for the recruitment of officials and others at home and abroad. In 1858, the report of a Civil Service Commission (set up to consider inefficiencies in the Crimean War and the problems of directly governing India) called for recruitment ‘by public competition and not by private patronage’ and for the provision of tests by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge of ‘the elements of a plain English education’. Two bodies were set up, the Oxford Delegacy and the Cambridge Syndicate, which remain central to the British tradition of examining by independent bodies. Their establishment lent weight to the existing external examinations of the University of London, administered for its own matriculating purposes. In 1903 the Joint Matriculation Board and in 1953 the Associated Examining Board were added, and the five boards became responsible for officially recognized school-leaving examinations in England. More directly government-sponsored bodies were set up for the same purpose in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. By the end of the 19c a range of school examinations had been established in Britain and parts of the Empire. These have been developed and refined throughout the 20c, under various names and with various emphases.

Commonwealth examinations

Within the Commonwealth there has been a process of devolution from British control, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa having long had their own systems. In territories where English has second-language status the picture is complex. In some areas, links with UK examining boards have been retained, sometimes as the sole system of examination, sometimes alongside new indigenous systems. In India, there is a Council for the Indian School Certificate Examination, based on a grouping of English-medium schools and associated with the Cambridge Overseas School Certificate. A West African Examinations Council conducts school examinations in Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Gambia, in consultation with British boards (Cambridge and London) active in the area. London's influence continues to be strong for private candidates (adults seeking a second chance of education). An East African Examinations Council operates in Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, associated with British boards (Cambridge and AEB). The Caribbean area has followed the same pattern, with the Caribbean Examinations Council established in consultation with British boards. Single-country examining authorities have been established, at first with British board sponsorship, in Hong Kong with London, and in Singapore and Malaysia with Cambridge. Smaller areas of UK influence, such as Malta, Cyprus, and the River Plate countries of South America, with their high level of second-language use, alternate between British or locally conducted school examinations and British-based EFL examinations such as Cambridge.

American examinations

State control of examining, closely linked to the systematic grading of classes, is a feature of US education that can be traced to the influence of the Enlightenment on the founders of the Republic. Each of the 50 states has its own educational system, of which testing is an integral part. In addition, decisions in many states are made by local school districts, as a result of which few useful generalizations can be made about examining in English for the whole country. Tests used for college admission in many parts of the nation are largely machine-graded, written and scored by such private bodies as the College Entrance Examination Board (with the Scholastic Aptitude Test or SAT), and the American College Testing Program (with the American College Test or ACT). Some students completing a first degree take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) offered by Educational Testing Service (ETS) of Princeton, New Jersey, used by most US universities as one factor in admissions to postgraduate study. There is controversy over these standardized, multiple-choice tests of aptitude and the interpretation of their scores, and they are often said to be culturally biased or easier for those already accustomed to them. Despite such criticisms, they continue to be widely used, as one of a number of factors that include course grades, recommendations from teachers, application essays, and sometimes interviews: testing is less important as a determinant of the future of US students than in some other English-speaking countries.

Other countries

Local arrangements for the achievement and diagnostic testing of English in non-English-speaking countries follow the interests, needs, and resources of each country, varying from sophisticated provision for high levels of performance in northern Europe to more uncertain initiatives elsewhere, often linked with grammar-translation and literature-based approaches. Some countries have experimented in the teaching and testing of their own languages as foreign languages on EFL lines (for example, Swedish and Spanish), and have benefited from the resulting cross-fertilization in terms of local English teaching. Within Europe, the Cambridge examinations have achieved particular significance.

English as a native language

The broad target in examinations of English as a first language is a performance that meets the needs both of practical effectiveness and of conformity with agreed rules of syntax, vocabulary, and orthography, at a level associated with completion of a process of general education: that is, completion of an accredited school curriculum at 16, marked by a certificate that serves as a qualification for employment, vocational or other training, or higher education. The relevance of performance in public examinations to real-life social and communicative needs continues to be a matter of controversy, along with the general role and procedures of examining boards. Public examining has been criticized for institutionalizing an interlocking and educationally sterile system of teaching and testing, for the discouragement of cultural development through wider reading and writing, and for its tendency to concentrate on testable minutiae of vocabulary and usage. For testers, the problem has been one of reconciling the relative importance of the holistic and atomistic elements in a syllabus.

Directly analytical testing of orthography, vocabulary, and syntax has been generally abandoned in the later 20c, on the grounds that it does not predict effective communicative performance. The usual pattern of testing combines a form of global assessment (with a communicative or functional basis) and an objective mode based on reading comprehension. Attempts to maintain a constant standard, though procedurally successful because of the long experience of the boards and the paramount importance of consistency, are deeply affected by such wider issues as the level of tolerance of ‘error’ in examination scripts and linguistic factors in the teaching of general school subjects: the presentation of information in note form or in a subject-specific register, or in the formal prose associated with the humanities. Such factors have made for considerable uncertainty of aim and procedure in language testing throughout the English-speaking world, with an associated tendency to deflect problems by emphasizing either objectivity (in the narrow fields of usage and the comprehension of texts) or creativity (of a personal kind or in terms of literary appreciation).

English as a second language

One legacy of empire is the problem of variation between locally accepted but not mutually or internationally intelligible forms of English. Such local forms are often assisted by long association with a British-based, or British-developed, school examination structure that has not systematically addressed problems of variation. Second-language users have widely varying aspirations towards quasi-first-language status, with varied effects on linguistic conservatism, first-language influence, and the teaching styles favoured as appropriate and practicable in each area. There is little systematic knowledge of the elements of difference and little motivation to build examination syllabuses on an agreed corpus of these; instead, the assessment of free composition by non-local examiners for a British board remains a standard though uncertain procedure. Organized examining has to date failed to take significantly into account such broad developments as archaism of vocabulary in India and Pakistan, syllable-timing in English as spoken in Africa, and the movement towards the ‘legitimization’ of Creoles and Black Englishes. Although the pattern of centralized non-local examining is especially British, the problem of integrating second-language pupils and examination candidates into general educational systems is shared by English-speaking countries as a whole, sometimes shading off into wider aspects of sociolinguistic development and sometimes into the more clear-cut area of EFL. Teaching shows the effects of this confusion, as do the availability and content of tests.

English as a foreign language

A number of factors emerged in the 1960s as the basis for improvement in the testing of English as an international language, with its built-in emphasis on efficient communication. The post-war, post-colonial demand for an equalizing lingua franca, serving the needs of an era of unprecedentedly heightened communication, had increased interest in examinations available internationally, with heavy increases in entries and a heightened sense of involvement among teachers. The Cambridge examinations in particular, introduced in 1913 as a small-scale extension of the board's British and overseas school examining, but greatly expanded since 1945, came under critical review, with special emphasis on problems of culture bias in content and assessment, the testing of oral performance, and the general validity and reliability of tests. The Syndicate's links with specialized teaching, through the BRITISH COUNCIL and newly established university schools of applied linguistics (notably Edinburgh), made possible a research programme that resulted in a remodelling (1975) of the Cambridge syllabus. In this, the relative weighting given to objective/analytical and holistic/impressionistic elements was computer-controlled in a five-paper examination covering reading, writing, listening, and speaking, with such features as task-based composition, active and specific testing (through conversion or transformation exercises) of the candidate's grasp of language patterns, a substantial but contained element of objective testing, and the exclusion of culture-based elements such as literature, translation, and Brito- or Eurocentric texts and situations. The immediate popularity of the new syllabus, available at two established levels (Certificate Proficiency in English and First Certificate English) showed its relevance to international needs and its predictive accuracy, particularly at the lower level. Cambridge's position was further consolidated by the introduction of similarly designed elementary level tests from 1980, a further streamlining of the main CPE and FCE syllabus in 1984, and the taking over of responsibility for both the British Council's English Language Testing Service and the Royal College of Arts' range of examination schemes for EFL teachers. A number of other British and non-British examining bodies, of varying status and operational scope, also currently offer English language tests for the foreign learner. In the US, the ETS offers the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), to measure the English-language ability of foreign students seeking admission to American universities.

See CAMBRIDGE CERTIFICATE OF PROFICIENCY IN ENGLISH, EDUCATION, ELT, LANGUAGE LEARNING, LANGUAGE TEACHING, TEACHING ENGLISH, TEFL, TEIL, TESD, TESL, UCLES.

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