For a while, I was never really involved in testing and assessing students’ language use. I taught Business English at a centre where the students’ performance was more important than an IELTS score. They were engaged in real life – taking their place as a part of building real solutions to real issues, part of the ongoing questioning and very necessary collaboration with fellow citizens, contributing in and to an increasingly demanding and complicated global enterprise, not pratting about trying to achieve 6.5 on their IELTS Writing Test.
But the wheel turns inexorably and I now find myself face to face with this anathema. I liken it to trying to decide whether to walk barefoot over a path of broken glass, or brave the quicksands next to the path. Fear? FEAR? Are you kidding me? I have PhD students who have done years of research, left home and hearth and suffered significant emotional and financial depletion to get their place at some British University. And now it’s all been for naught because they didn’t score that magical 7 or 7.5 on some deeply arbitrary and arcane scale. And I don’t know how to help them…..Both they and I are terrified they won’t make it next time.
Here’s the first puzzlement: Oxford wants 8, Coventry University wants 7, University of Northumbria wants 6.5 on the aforementioned arcane scale. (8 what? 7.5 what? Points, I know, but points of what? According to whom?) Now seriously, what MEANS this teacher? Northumbria is more accommodating as far as language ability goes? Oxford only wants near-native speakers? Is it more sinister? Northumbria needs the money… Oxford can be pickier?… It’s a puzzle, isn’t it?
Second puzzlement. The most useful way to help someone improve is to GIVE THEM FEEDBACK. IELTS doesn’t provide ANY feedback AT ALL. At IATEFL, I asked a testing guru why this was so. Stupid question really – I knew the answer. Too expensive and a logistical nightmare. I note it’s not too expensive to employ the researchers, test setters, materials writers, examiners and markers and neither is it a logistical nightmare to run the tests. I wonder why?
Like an IELTS essay, here comes the other argument. I totally understand that if someone is going to come to an English speaking country and do potentially very useful, meaningful research, they need to be able to manage a lot of stuff in the language. Besides the actual research and writing up academic papers while working in University departments, they also need to learn to live in the country – deal with landlords, open bank accounts, get broadband sorted, find their way about, make friends and have some sort of life. And although I do understand the need in this situation to have fairly solid control over the language and maybe even to a specified degree, why is that degree different at different universities and surely in the vast – and dare I say it – MASSIVELY WEALTHY behemoth that is IELTS, they can provide some sort of useful, meaningful feedback to these people who are funding them so generously?
That brings me neatly to the dosh. Students also need to spend a goodly sum – I think it’s £120 or something – to sit the IELTS and many of them do this until they get the elusive whatever it is. They are now also paying me to ‘help’ them. In order to ‘help’, I have had to buy – at some cost – a few books showing me how to ‘teach to the test’ (oh woe, oh woe, oh woe) as I had not a clue what IELTS even was. I thought I might look for the latest guide when at IATEFL last week, but when I approached the bookstands, my mind slammed shut so fast I could hardly read the titles. I bought nothing. Firstly because I couldn’t choose which one would be most useful to my particular students and secondly, there’s that little Che Guevara spark in me still that said, “NO! Do NOT feed this monster.”
We’ll see what happens next Saturday when my student takes himself off gamely to write his IELTS again. Well, I won’t see will I, because I’m not there and I won’t have a clue what he says or writes, so I won’t be able to guide him when the inevitable result comes in.
Testing? Nuts to it.