TESTING: The Great Dilemma

TESTING – the great dilemma


It is generally agreed that testing is a necessary and valuable part of any educational process, but it should be recognized that testing is only an administrative process. Testing may create educational benefits, but these are just spin-offs from the administrative process. Testing, followed by remedial teaching can identify and solve learning problems, but the main purpose of testing is administration. Testing may also reveal limitations in the teaching process, but this is not their purpose, the purpose is administrative – plain and simple.

Why do administrators like tests? – Because tests convert the complex learning process into simple numbers which can be written in a book or loaded on to a computer. Administrators like tests because they ‘separate the sheep from the goats’, they allow administrators to apply labels to learners and sort them into groups.


Achievement tests frequently have pass grades, which allows administrators to label learners as ‘successes’ or ‘failures’. Once these labels are written in books or recorded on computers, they can have devastating effects on a learner’s motivation for future learning and future progress. The labels also influence teachers. If a learner is labelled as a failure, that learner will not be asked challenging questions or given challenging work assignments. In a class context, the teacher will always tend to direct challenging questions to learners who have been labelled as ‘successes’. The ‘failures’ will sit quietly at the back of the classroom and make little progress.

The ‘failure’ label is a guarantee of future failure.

Tests are dangerous weapons

Many hours of valuable learning time are devoted to preparing for tests. Tests interrupt the learning process and should be used sparingly. A livestock farmer remarked:

You do not fatten a pig by weighing it every day.”

Time which is devoted to testing or preparing for tests, is time which is often lost from learning. Educational administrators and schools are encouraging teachers to test more and more frequently, but, as the farmer would say, “This does not fatten the pig.”

Of course, educating a child is not the same as fattening a pig. When we educate a child, we do not just attempt to fill the child’s head with knowledge. It’s true that instilling knowledge is part of the educational process, but training and inspiring the child to use and exploit that knowledge in new and original ways, is equally important.

Education is not filling a jug, but lighting a fire.”

Early testing

The British Ministry of Education wants to test children at the age of 3 or 4, before they start school. The aim of this may be to identify potential educational problems, before the child starts school. These ‘educational problems’ may take many different forms. English may not be the main language of the home which means that the child will be at a disadvantage compared with others in the class. The home may be unstimulating, so that the child entering school may be unfamiliar with conversation with adults or unfamiliar with books or other learning materials. The child may be an only child who has not encountered and played with other children and this social deprivation will have educational consequences in the early years.

Identifying these potential educational problems is a very good idea, which most teachers would support, but the early tests carry the danger that children will become labelled as ‘failures,’ before they have even started school.

This trend towards early testing is also taking place in the U.S.A. On his Facebook page, Professor Stephen Krashen has written frequently about these dangers. The pattern of early testing is being followed in many other countries. Everywhere, learners are being asked to do more and more tests. Teachers are spending more of their limited teaching hours on preparing for, and administering, these tests. The tests create stress for teachers, parents and learners, but who benefits from these tests?

What can we learn from tests?

The results of these tests usually confirm what the teacher already knows. The good teacher, who has been working with the child, and monitoring her/his progress already knows each child’s capability and potential. The only test results which really matter, are the unexpected test results.

An unexpected test result is a warning alarm for the teacher.

Learners produce unexpected test results when:

  1. The learner is distressed, distracted or unwell on the day of the test [so the test result is not a true reflection of the learner’s usual ability.]
  2. The learner has copied from another learner [so the test result is inaccurate.]
  3. The test instructions (rubrics) are too difficult for the learner to understand [so the test result is inaccurate.]
  4. The learner has not been given enough time to complete the test [so the test result is inaccurate.]
  5. The test does not reflect the style or content of previous teaching [so the test result is inaccurate.]

In five out of six cases, the unexpected result has been created by failures in the test or administration, rather than failures by the learner.


Testing is part of the process of constant monitoring of each learner’s learning progress. This monitoring involves many different activities:

  1. Noting the learner’s responses to questions from the teacher.
  2. Noting the learner’s responses to questions from other learners.
  3. Noting the learner’s questions addressed to the teacher.
  4. Noting the learner’s questions addressed to other learners.
  5. Grading the learner’s performance in role-play, games and other activities.
  6. Noting the learner’s eye-contact and body language during lessons.
  7. Noting and grading the learner’s performance in writing, drawing and other paper-based activities.
  8. Noting and grading the learner’s performance and involvement in both intensive and extensive listening, reading and viewing.
  9. Noting the learner’s social development and linguistic behaviour in class.
  10. Noting and grading the learner’s general motivation, progress and willingness to learn from mistakes.

All of these factors should inform the teacher’s assessment of a learner’s learning progress. No test can attempt to measure all these factors, so, in general, always believe the teacher rather than the test.

Testing and then…?

A lot of words have been devoted to preparation for tests, administration of tests, writing and grading of tests, but very little has been said about the important work which should follow on from a test.

For all their limitations, good tests can often reveal weaknesses in language skills, failures to understand and failures to remember. The most valuable part of a test is the remedial teaching and learning which should follow any test.

The same again, or something different?

Weaknesses or failures in the learning process indicate that the earlier teaching procedures have failed. Remedial learners do not need a repetition of these unsuccessful teaching procedures.

Hang on, my teaching procedures are excellent! It’s just that the students are lazy!

Your teaching procedures may be superb, but the test results suggest that the learners have not learnt as a result of your teaching. Maybe your teaching was too fast for the learners. Maybe your teaching tasks were too challenging. Maybe the topic you chose for your teaching was uninteresting for the learners. Whatever the cause, your remedial learners need something different – not a repetition of the same lessons.

Something different

There are many different ways to learn and the tests show that your remedial learners have acquired a partial, but incomplete, understanding of the skill, concept or body of knowledge which you were trying to teach. So they have some basic understanding or knowledge from which you can build. You are not starting from zero. You might try some of these alternatives:

  1. Present the material in a different medium – as a mime or a role play game, as a video, computer game, picture, song, rhyme or listening activity.
  2. Let the learners have greater participation in the learning process by involving them in graded creative activities.
  3. Prompt learners to compare the English language task with parallel tasks in their own language. Draw attention to similarities and differences.
  4. Since you have a class of learners with different levels of understanding, try peer-to-peer (student to student) teaching and learning in groups or with learning buddies.
  5. Invite remedial learners to become ‘monitors’ observing and listening to other learners working on communication tasks or practice activities.
  6. Invite individuals or groups to prepare lessons followed by informal quizzes.

Who needs remedial work?

Teachers often avoid doing remedial work by saying that they do not have time to provide individual instruction. As we can see above, remedial work can involve the whole class. Experience shows that learners often learn more successfully from their peers than from the teacher – so give yourself a break and let the students do the work!

The test results indicate that some learners in the class clearly need remedial work. In fact, all the learners would benefit from some remedial work. The learners have each achieved a different level of perfection but they can all improve with more exposure to language. Even in peer-to-peer teaching, the student adopting the role of the ‘teacher’ learns and develops as much as the ‘student’. As we know from our own work, nothing requires a greater understanding of a topic or skill than the need to teach it to someone else!


Politicians like to demonstrate that they are interested in education, they do this, not by supporting the teachers, but by imposing more tests on the learners. Most tests are a waste of the teachers’ and learners’ time. Careful monitoring and good record keeping give the teacher much more information than any test. However, tests provide punctuation marks in the learning programme and are a useful change from day-to-day teaching. Tests are only punctuation marks, but, on their own, punctuation marks have no meaning.

Nick Dawson 2015


2 thoughts on “TESTING: The Great Dilemma

  1. Great read Nick! Plato’s definition of testing in Republic 380 BC was: ‘All manner of tests are essential for society’. This had to do more with social status and division of classes rather learning. Or is it still the same today?

  2. Keith Dalton says:

    Take a look at this view from the ‘World’s best teacher’ who warns on too much testing – Nancie Atwell says:

    For teachers, she said an excessive focus on testing and a curriculum based on passing a test was “de-professionalising” teaching. She went on to says that a culture of excessive testing can damage standards and “decimate morale” among teachers.

    I saw this on the BBC website today http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-34769430

    Thought it appropriate as another perspective from a US teacher…

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