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What is Language Testing?

Definitions of Language Testing

"A definition is enclosing a wilderness
of idea within a wall of words." ---Samuel Butler (1835-1902)
Definition 1
"Language Testing is the practice and study of evaluating the proficiency of an individual in using a
particular language effectively."---Priscilla Allen, University of Washington.
Definition 2
"The activity of developing and using language tests. As a psychometric activity, language testing
traditionally was more concerned with the production, development and analysis of tests. Recent critical
and ethical approaches to language testing have placed more emphasis on the uses of language tests. The
purpose of a language test is to determine a persons knowledge and/or ability in the language and to
discriminate that persons ability from that of others. Such ability may be of different kinds, achievement,
proficiency or aptitude. Tests, unlike scales, consist of specified tasks through which language abilities
are elicited. The term language assessment is used in free variation with language testing although it is
also used somewhat more widely to include for example classroom testing for learning and institutional
examinations." ----Alan Davies, University of Edinburgh.
Definition 3
"In the context of language teaching and learning, 'assessment' refers to the act of collecting information
and making judgments about a language learner's knowledge of a language and ability to use it." ---Carol
Chapelle and Geoff Brindley, Universities of Iowa State and Macquarie.
Definition 4
I have to say that this is my personal favourite.
"It is a species of sortition infinitely preferable to the ancient method of casting lots for honours and
offices." ----F. Y. Edgeworth, in his 1888 paper The Statistics of Examinations.
Founding Documents of Modern Language Testing
Sometimes complex phenomena like language testing are explained in relation to their roots. It is often
said that modern language testing dates to 1961, because this was the date of the publication of the first
book on language testing by Robert Lado, and a paper setting out the scope of language testing by J. B.
Carroll. Below are two PDF documents. One is a short extract from the beginning of Lado's Language
Testing, and the second is Carroll's Fundamental Considerations in Testing for English Language
Proficiency of Foreign Students.
Lado: extracts from Language Testing
Carroll: Fundamental Considerations in Testing
On this website you can explore many of the concepts underlying the modern practice of language testing.
A useful place to start is by watching our short videos on key ideas in language testing.

Wikipedia has an entry on language testing. This is its current definition:

"Language Assessment or Language Testing is a field of study under the umbrella of applied linguistics.
Its main focus is the assessment of first, second or other language in the school, college, or university
context; assessment of language use in the workplace; and assessment of language in the immigration,
citizenship, and asylum contexts."
This is attributed to the 2008 edition of the Encyclopedia of Language and Education, Vol 7., Language
Testing and Assessment
Test Preparation
Tests have been used for as long as there has been organised education to make decisions about who is
able to undertake certain tasks in society. The earliest references that I have discovered to selection
"trials" is in Plato's Republic. As you will see in the scenarios below, the use of tests for selection impacts
upon jobs, education, and many other roles in life. This means that test scores have economic value. This
is not a new observation. The following quotation is from the 19th Century:
"Parents want something to shew for education; a place in an examination list seems to gauge the
advantage which they have paid for, and besides it frequently has a positive market value as opening the
door to some emolument or profession" (Latham, 1887, p. 23).
It is therefore inevitable that the use of tests will generate "satellite industries", the larges of which is test
preparation. Latham was the first to refer to schools that specialised in test preparation as "crammers". We
still use the word today. However, there is such a thing as ethical test preparation. For further information
on test preparation for some of the larger tests, and for the purposes of immigration.


1. Discrete-point Testing Approach
Discrete Point tests are constructed on the assumption that language can be divided into its
components parts, and those parts can be tested successfully. The components are the skills of
listening, speaking, reading, writing, and various unit of language of phonology, morphology,
lexicon, and syntax. Discrete point tests aim to achieve a high reliability factor by testing a large
number of discrete items, but each question tests only one linguistic point.
2. Integrative Testing Approach
This approach involves the testing of language in context and is thus concerned primarily with
meaning and the total communicative effect of discourse. This approach stated that
communicative competence is so global that it requires the integration of all linguistic abilities.
According to Oller (1983), if discrete items take language skill apart, integrative tests put it back
together; whereas discrete items attempt to test knowledge of language a bit at a time, integrative
tests attempt to assess a learners capacity to use many bits all at the same time.
The fact that discrete point and integrative testing only provided a measure of the candidates
competence rather than measuring the candidates performance brought about the need for
communicative language testing (Weir 1990). By the mid-1980s, the language testing field had
abandoned arguments about the unitary competence and had begun to focus on designing
communicative language testing (Brown, 2004)
3. Communicative Testing Approach
Communicative testing approach lays more emphasis on the notion and function, like agreeing,
persuading, or inviting, that language means in communication. Communicative language testing
approach is used to measure language learners ability to use the target language in authentic
situations. The approach beliefs that someone/ a student is considered successful in learning the
target language if she/he can communicate or use knowledge and skills by way of authentic
listening, speaking , reading and writing . Communicative language tests have to be as accurate a
reflection of that situation as possible. The example of communicative language test is role play.
The teacher asks students to do a role play such as pretending that the students come to the
doctor, pretending that the students are in the market.
The principles of testing in the communicative language testing can be describe as the following
(Anon,1990) :
Tasks in the test should resemble as far as possible to the ones as would be found in real
life in terms of communicative use of language
There is a call for test items contextualization .
There is a need to make test items that adress a definite audience for a purposeful
communicative intent (goal) to be envisioned (might happen).
Test instructions and scoring plans should touch on effective, communication of meaning
rather than on grammatical accuracy
4. Performance testing approach
Any assesment can be considered a type of performance when a student is placed in some
context and asked to show what they know or can do in that context. Performance-based
assessment believes that the students will learn best when they are given a chance to perform and
show what they know according to their own plan, collect data, infer pattern, draw conclution,
take a stand or diliver presentation. According to Brown(2004), In developing performance-
based assessment, we as teacher should consider the following principle:
State the overall goal of the performance
Specify the objectives (criteria) of the performance in details
Prepare students for performance in stepwise progressions
Use a reliable evaluation form, checklist or rating sheet
Treat performances as opportunities for giving feedback and provide that feedback
If possible, utilize self- and peer-assessments judiciously(wisely/carefully)
Strengths and Weaknesses of Language Testing Approach
1. Discrete-point Testing Approach
The test of this approach can cover a wide range of scope of materials to be put in the
The test allows quantification on the students responses.
In the term of scoring, the test is also reliable because of its objectivity; the scoring is
efficient, even it can be perform by machine
Constructing discrete point test items is potentially energy and time consuming.
The test do not include social context where verbal communication normally take place.
Success in doing the test is not readily inferable to the ability of the test taker to
communicate in real life circumstances.
2. Integrative Testing Approach
The approach to meaning and the total communicative effect of discourse will be very
useful for pupils in testing
This approach can view pupils proficiency with a global view.
The strength of the test such as dictation, writing, and cloze test is that relatively cheap
and easy to make
Even if measuring integrated skills are better but sometimes teacher should consider the
importance of measuring skills based on particular need, such as writing only, speaking
The scoring is not efficient and not reliable

3. Communicative Testing Approach

The tests are more realistic to evaluate the students language use, as the students in a
role as though they were to communicate in the real world / daily lives.
It increases students motivation since they can see the use of language they learnt in
class in the real world.
Not efficient (time and energy consuming)
Problem of extrapolation (Weir, 1990) (we cannot guarantee that the students who
successfully accomplish the task in class will also be successfull in the communication in
real life)
4. Performance Testing Approach
Increasing learning motivation (The students tend to be more motivated and involved
when they are allowed to perform according to their own plan, collect data, infer a
pattern, draw conclutions, take stand, or deliver a presentation.)
Meaningful (it is meaningful assessment since we require students to show what they can
do through project, performance, or observation. It will give them learning experience
more than just paper and pencil test)
Authentic (since the materials and topics we use in class is authentic, the students can see
the relation of what they learn with the reality in their daily lives)
Challange high order thinking of students (In order to prepare for the best performance,
the students will try their best to analyze the problem deeper and find many learning
sources by themselves )
Time consuming (for students: they need to prepare the performance e.g. Download
information for the Internet or preparing the costume and property for role play, for
teacher: Teachers need to provide guidance in every stage they are going to be through.
For example, in assessing the students to make portofolio of essay, we need to check
every single paper of the students one by one every week, and when it has been revised,
we have to check it again.
Expensive (Students: the students should provide extra money to prepare the performance
such as costumes for role play)
Challage the teacher to match performance assessment to classroom goals and learning