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There are some surprising similarities between baking and developing effective tests! Writes Graham Seed from Cambridge University Press & Assessment. Graham teaches on Cambridge’s Master’s course in English Language Assessment, which is currently in its first year. He looks at the different ways teachers and other professionals might approach creating or modifying a test.
“English language tests come in all shapes and sizes. From small scale assessments set by teachers in the classroom, up to internationally recognised tests for high stakes purposes such as immigration. If you’re a teacher or other professional faced with the task of producing a test, then the context and scale of the test will of course determine your development approach. However, there are some general principles you can consider which will put you on the right track for ensuring success.
I was recently making a cake for my daughter’s birthday, and I started to make a fun comparison between the process of baking and test development. But the more I thought about it, it was a very good comparison. In both baking and test development, you must ask yourself lots of questions, acquire the right tools or utensils and have good ingredients.
When you set out to make a cake, you have to stop and ask:
When you’re creating or modifying an English test, you have to ask similar types of questions. When I’m teaching on module six of the Master’s course, I get my students to think about the answers to some of these questions:
A big question from our Master’s students is: What do you actually put in a test?
To answer this question, we can look at the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), which is the international standard of language ability. Cambridge played a big part in the early development of the framework, and all of our qualifications are closely aligned to it. The CEFR is particularly helpful in this context because it is based on a communicative model of language acquisition, and that's the model we follow in test development: to test language that’s actually going to be useful in real-life communication. So, we explain to our master’s students how they can use the CEFR to help them think about what sorts of language they might want to put into a language test . Just as you decide if you will put chocolate or lemon into a cake, you can decide if you will put reading news articles or informal conversation into a language test.
We also look at the tools you need to make a test. So, if we go back to my baking analogy, you will need a cake mixer, a whisk, weighing scales, a mixing bowl etc.
Making a test is no different in the sense that you need certain tools to get the job done. But what are these tools? We start by asking our students to consider the different types of task types they think they will need to elicit the right types of language. For example, students will look at different task types for reading, writing, listening and speaking. And we also discuss the importance of defining assessment criteria for tests. In this section we get them to think about not just the criteria, but how it will be marked – for example, by a human or by a machine, or a combination of both, and what is needed to make these marking methods reliable.
It’s important to remember that developing tests is something we take very seriously in Cambridge and there is lots of work that goes on behind the scenes to ensure our tests are valid and fit for purpose. So, we’re not giving our students a crash course in test design or encouraging them to cut corners. However, the point of Module Six in the Master’s course is to give students an overview of both the theoretical and practical factors they need to consider when starting this process for their own tests, whatever the context.
We’re already getting fantastic feedback from the first group of students, and I hope this is a fun way to describe what is a fascinating process. Because making a test is one thing, but taking the right approach there is the icing on the cake!”.
Senior Research Manager, Cambridge University Press & Assessment