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Creating Effective Classroom Tests
by Christine Coombe and Nancy Hubley
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II. The Cornerstones of Testing

Language testing at any level is a highly complex undertaking that must be based on theory as well as practice. Although this PCI focuses on practical aspects of classroom testing, an understanding of the basic principles of good testing is essential. The guiding principles that govern good test design, development and analysis are validity, reliability, practicality, washback, authenticity, transparency and security. Constant references to these important "cornerstones" of language testing will be made throughout the workshop.
cornerstones checklist

Validity

The term validity refers to the extent to which a test measures what it says it measures. In other words, test what you teach, how you teach it! Types of validity include content, construct, and face. For classroom teachers, content validity means that the test assesses the course content and outcomes using formats familiar to the students. Construct validity refers to the "fit" between the underlying theories and methodology of language learning and the type of assessment. For example, a communicative language learning approach must be matched by communicative language testing. Face validity means that the test looks as though it measures what it is supposed to measure. This is an important factor for both students and administrators. Other types of validity are more appropriate to large-scale assessment.
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Reliability

Reliability refers to the consistency of test scores. It simply means that a test would give similar results if it were given at another time. Three important factors effect test reliability. Test factors such as the formats and content of the questions and the length of the exam must be consistent. For example, testing research shows that longer exams produce more reliable results than very brief quizzes. Administrative factors are also important for reliability. These include the classroom setting (lighting, seating arrangements, acoustics, lack of intrusive noise etc.) and how the teacher manages the exam administration. Affective factors in the response of individual students can also affect reliability. Test anxiety can be allayed by coaching students in good test-taking strategies.
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Practicality

Classroom teachers are well familiar with practical issues, but they need to think of how practical matters relate to testing. A good classroom test should be "teacher-friendly". A teacher should be able to develop, administer and mark it within the available time and with available resources. Classroom tests are only valuable to students when they are returned promptly and when the feedback from assessment is understood by the student. In this way, students can benefit from the test-taking process. Practical issues include time, resources (everything from computer access, copying facilities, AV equipment to storage space), and administrative logistics.
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Washback

Washback refers to the effect of testing on teaching and learning. Unfortunately, students and teachers tend to think of the negative effects of testing such as "test-driven" curricula and only studying and learning "what they need to know for the test". Positive washback, or what we prefer to call "guided washback" can benefit teachers, students and administrators. Positive washback assumes that testing and curriculum design are both based on clear course outcomes which are known to both students and teachers/testers. If students perceive that tests are markers of their progress towards achieving these outcomes, they have a sense of accomplishment. In short, tests must be part of learning experiences for all involved.
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Authenticity

Language learners are motivated to perform when they are faced with tasks that reflect real world situations and contexts. Good testing or assessment strives to use formats and tasks that mirror the types of situations in which students would authentically use the target language. Whenever possible, teachers should attempt to use authentic materials in testing language skills.
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Transparency

Transparency refers to the availability of clear, accurate information to students about testing. Such information should include outcomes to be evaluated, formats used, weighting of items and sections, time allowed to complete the test, and grading criteria. Transparency dispels the myths and mysteries surrounding secretive testing and the adversarial relationship between learning and assessment. Transparency makes students part of the testing process.
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Security

Most teachers feel that security is an issue only in large-scale, high-stakes testing. However, security is part of both reliability and validity. If a teacher invests time and energy in developing good tests that accurately reflect the course outcomes, then it is desirable to be able to recycle the tests or similar materials. This is especially important if analyses show that the items, distractors and test segments are valid and discriminating. In some parts of the world, cultural attitudes towards "collaborative test-taking" are a threat to test security and thus to reliability and validity. As a result, there is a trade-off between letting tests into the public domain and giving students adequate information about tests.
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Cornerstones Checklist

When developing, administering and grading exams, ask yourself the following questions:

o Does your exam test the curriculum content?

o Does your exam contain formats familiar to the students?

o Does your test reflect your philosophy of teaching?

o Would this test yield the same results if you gave it again?

o Will the administration of your test be the same for all classes?

o Have you helped students reduce test anxiety through test-taking strategies?

o Do you have enough time to write, grade and analyze your test?

o Do you have all the resources (equipment, paper, storage) you need?

o Will this test have a positive effect on teaching and learning?

o Are the exam tasks authentic and meaningful?

o Do students have accurate information about this test?

o Have you taken measures to insure test security?

o Is your test a good learning experience for all involved?

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