Prof. Elana Shohamy Talks About The Ethicality Of Testing

(Reading time: 7 - 13 minutes)

Professor Elana Shohamy  is Chair of the Language Education programme at the School of Education, Tel Aviv University, where she researches multiple topics relating to language assessment: its power, politics and consequences for different societal groups (e.g. immigrants in schools, adults requesting citizenship) and the role that tests play in establishing language policies.  

 

Recently, she has been working on expanding the 'language' construct that needs to be assessed to include bi/multi/hybrid languages, digital literacies and languages in the ecology (linguistic landscape).

 

Elana is the author and editor of several books, such as The Power of Tests (2001), Language Policy (2006), Encyclopedia of Language and Education, vol 7, Language assessment, (2008), and Linguistic Landscape, Expanding the Scenery, 2009.

 

She is also the editor of the journal Language Policy and the winner of the ILTA life time achievement award for 2010.

 

I have attended Prof. Shohamy’s plenary sessions and presentations in many international conferences in various European venues in the past 10 years.

 

Big audiences pack lecture rooms to capacity whenever Prof. Shohamy talks about language policies, the power of tests, diversity, ethicality, validity, etc. challenging tests and testers and raising questions.

 

The interview was conducted in the garden of the old university of Cyprus. Elana is a smart woman, a mother and a grandmother of two, a devoted teacher, an inspiring author, a researcher and a passionate presenter.
 

 

∙In the ELT field you have a reputation of being unconventional, even an anarchist. Is this true?

“I am probably unconventional, because I am part of this group which is called ‘language testers’ and people expect you to be loyal to the group.

We are language testers so we should believe in tests. It’s like living in Israel; you are supposed to be loyal to Israel, patriotic.

I am unconventional in the sense that I don’t accept conventional things. I always ask questions - about Israel, about religion, about language, about tests, about marriage, about parenthood, about grandmotherhood etc.

I like to challenge authority and I think a lot of it came from my upbringing because in Israel we are educated, even brainwashed at times, to believe in a certain ideology -Jews v Arabs- and I think that if ideology is very strong, it creates the opposite –a counter ideology.

In Israel people often misinterpret my political views and say ‘If you do not agree with the national ideologies, why do you live here?’

So I am very interested in challenging ideology, challenging all these things we are supposed to believe. Yes, in that respect, I am an anarchist.


Regarding testing it’s not that I don’t believe in tests but I constantly ask questions. I have a very strong belief in changing the system. I work in education and in education you want to change things, you always ask questions.”

 

∙You are not against testing but you are against testers, I suppose.

“I don’t think I am against testers; I am against the uses or rather misuses of tests. I think a number of us who’ve been doing this critical work, have created an atmosphere where we want people to ask questions about tests and not to accept them as given.

Testers are not bad people; it’s that they are trained in a certain way, more in directions of how to find the most efficient way for testing and less about what is being tested and whether we always need tests at all, i.e., how tests are used.

My view is that testing is one procedure of this whole thing that is language education, language learning and language use.

Testing is the most powerful thing. It’s more powerful than the curriculum. I would like to see a world without tests but the reality is different; you need selection, you need to give diplomas because I wouldn’t like to have a doctor who doesn’t know the language; but what kind of language does one need?

One can get along nicely with language which is far from being native-like. It would be good if people, especially in situations where we have many immigrants, are trained how to interact with people who are far from native-like proficiency.

We have to re-think our practices - whether to use formal tests, whether to use a linear scale as the CEFR, which is standardizing minds and brains.

I think this is problematic. So I am not against tests or testers; I am against the use of tests in the way they are currently constructed, rated, practiced, over-used.

Why not test in dialects, indigenous languages, aboriginal languages? Tests are prestigious and powerful tools that create de facto reality; Because of that we have to be more careful in the use of tests.

If you have only monolingual tests and monolingual scales like the CEFR, this delivers the message to teachers, students and immigrants that only monolingualism is valued.

We have to challenge this and think of constructing tests and scales that reflect more accurately how people use languages,

whether for immigrants who learn a new language but actually continue to use both languages most of their lives or for learners of foreign languages like English who will be using their first languages along with English, especially in academia as most academic material is in English. 

 

∙It probably happens because English is currently the dominant language…

“Yes, but English is so varied. I speak Hebrew-English, you speak Greek-English. So we know that nobody speaks like a native speaker and even native speakers do not speak the same type of English.

But yes, English is a good example that convinces people and the English case can be applied to other cases like Cypriot Greek. Take for example the CEFR, which focuses on one language only, a monolingual ideology of ‘national’ language.

The CEFR overlooks the reality; that immigrants develop a mixed bilingual code that stays with them all their lives. It is as if tests try to educate people about how they should use language rather than reflecting the kind of language and varieties they actually do use.

I object to tests as ideological tools when they attempt to change behaviours rather than reflect them.”

 

∙The language policy in the majority of the countries is to assimilate migrant population.

“In most cases it’s true but things are changing. Even the fact that everybody is talking about multilingualism, about the legitimacy of other languages and dialects shows that something is changing.

It’s a battle between nations that want to have everybody the same because they want control, they want cohesive societies and people who continue to use a special variety of varieties.”

 

∙Is it a bad thing?

“I think it is a bad thing because it is not real. Education is standardized enough. They should give us the flexibility to use the language we want. It’s not easy to learn another language.

It takes years: 9-10 years in intensive school situations. Migrant children will never achieve the same linguistic level and character as the native children.

Some people train themselves to forget their native language in order to be accepted in the new environment. But this is an era of contestation. People are reacting.

I don’t think that there is one immigrant that doesn’t want to speak the powerful language but we have to understand that it is not the only choice. The world is changing and is becoming more multilingual in Europe and elsewhere.

In Africa for instance there are battles for national/local languages and resenting the use of post colonial and global ones. We do see some changes but with citizenship tests the case is different. The motto is ‘we all speak one language’.

For me language testing is a policy tool. Because tests are so powerful, they dictate policy and they become policy. People internalize the message of the tests and think they can practice it that way; since it does not work, they always view themselves as ‘less than others’, not good enough.”

Dr Dina Tsagari with Prof. Elana Shohamy in Cyprus
 

 

∙In what way do tests affect the way we think of ourselves?

“I quote Anne Lazaraton who talks about language proficiency identity. It is a very powerful term because of the power of tests.

We believe that what tests say is true. Language is not static. You know how we teach a class… the language is flawing. So many things affect our fluency. You have a glass of wine and you become fluent. What Anne is showing is that language proficiency identity anchors the proficiency –“I am level B-1”.

We internalize it and by internalizing it sometimes we don’t change it, we develop a fixed language identity and a lot of it results from the score we get on tests.

We may think we are of ‘low level’. It’s like when parents tell children “how come you got such a bad grade on the test?” and you think you are a failure. By the way parents believe in the power of tests and they are very instrumental in contributing to testing identity.

It could be better if people saw tests as a tool for change, a fluid device and also, that one can be very smart in spite of a score of A-1, it is no indication of anything else but just the use of one language in one point of time; and all people are proficient in at least one other language, their native one.

 

∙Probably because testing was the only way to get a grade in their age…It still is, I am afraid…

“Exactly. My granddaughter, Alma, is five years old and lives in New York. In New York it is very difficult to be accepted in a good private school. She applied and she had to take so many tests and she is only five.

She passed all the tests of a particular school but her parents decided not to send her to that school because it focuses too much on achievement while there are many other things that a person should know.”

 

∙Do your colleagues in the testing field appreciate your ideas concerning the use and implications of tests?

“When I first presented my ideas language testers rejected them. I felt that the people working in this area of language testing viewed me as a betrayer of the field, that I doubted their identity, their ethicality even their authority. I felt they took it personally.

If we look backwards at the history of the field, language testing was originally based on psychometric theories and in my view this was very technical.

Many of the participants in the field had an interest in test development, which I find somewhat technical, less academic, less deep.

Today, as well, I find that the field fails to address larger questions about motivations for testing and their implications. I find that we generally try to address questions posed by testing organizations such as ETS or Cambridge ESOL.

I find that researchers in the field are not interested in the effect that these tests have on human beings, on the cost of the tests, on what language means in this day and age especially within of the context of migration, globalization and transnationalism, and on various societal dimensions. I mostly detest the fact that our tests are detached from people.

Take the language tests for citizenship, for example, that are sweeping Europe. Test developers want to construct tests but refuse to look at consequences, somehow being afraid of them rather than facing them.

They refuse to be critical like ‘what if our tests lead to deportation of immigrants?’ They do not ask questions; they do not follow the consequences and they do not want to face the fact that tests are very powerful political tools that are used by governments for very different reasons that they were constructed to begin with.

Yet, I feel my work is somehow appreciated or why else do they invite me to their international conferences? I don’t know…

Possibly it is because there are agencies and organizations that want to show that there are more voices to be heard and that the field of language testing is democratic and inclusive and ethical.

Maybe it is nice to have a critical voice as it transmits the message ‘We have morality, we have ethicality, we think about those things, about consequences and people’.

Yet, I still doubt whether the recommendations of examining the power and consequences of tests are ever examined. It is nice to support the idea but how much of it is actually implemented?

So I would say that whereas in the past my work did not get any attention from testers –only from applied linguists- nowadays, I am very much included and even encouraged to voice my views publicly about certain types of tests that have detrimental effects on people such as when they are used as deportation tools.

They even gave me ‘The ILTA (International Language Testing Association) Lifetime Achievement Award’ last year in Cambridge.”

 

∙Is the testing field challenged in our days?

“To some extent, new questions are being raised about the meaning of language and the possibilities of measuring the complex and dynamic variables of language.

Some questions are being brought up about the validity of tests.

Yet, validity also means the protection and guarding of the test takers’ personal rights as well as the positive washback effect tests should have on learning and I am not sure these questions are still addressed beyond a few researchers.

Testing companies do not include these questions in their research; they have very different interests which are mostly economical, to sell tests. Testing is a business.”

 

∙Are you alone in this ‘battle’?

“There are a number of people in the profession who ascribe to such views by addressing tests as tools. Others use tests as targets and they are still seeking the perfect test.

But the perfect test, psychometrically, may not meet the criteria I have just mentioned. For me, and for others working within this paradigm, tests are weapons that need to be watched, followed and monitored.

I wish we could get away from the classic testing genre of the ‘knower’ addressing the ‘non-knower’ who has to prove he or she ‘knows’ what the ‘knower’ knows via all kind of tricks, like multiple choices or distracters that only aim at even further confusing the one who is being asked. I find it creates fear, anxiety, stress and distrust and even some type of indoctrination.”

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