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The Influence Of Tests On Teaching Backwash

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 4564 words Published: 11th May 2017

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In the field of foreign language teaching and learning, there are two kinds of opposed views about the relationship between the language testing and the language teaching. One side is that the language testing should be known as the supplementary means for the language teaching. According to Davies (1968: 5), “the good test should follow and ape the teaching.” This is a point of controversy to most of researchers and teachers. The other side asserts that the relationship between teaching and testing is should regarded as partnership among each other. (Hughes, 2003: 3) That is commonly accepted among many scholars and teachers. Moreover, the language test is expected to support the good teaching and can be used as the corrective reflection and direction to the bad teaching. Furthermore, the influence of testing on teaching and learning is defined as backwash which can be either beneficial or harmful. (Hughes, 2003) Although, the test can impact the teaching on several aspects such as: ‘curriculum, materials, teaching method and content, attitude and behavior, and learning’ (Alderson & Wall, 1993), the existence and the nature of the influence would be affected some elements such as: the teacher, the school, the test itself. (Spratt, 2005; Alderson & Wall, 1993) Therefore, In addition, the existence and the nature of the backwash will be different in various teaching and testing context as well. (Alderson & Wall, 1993) In the first part I show the complicated phenomenon of the language testing backwash in the language teaching generally.

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Specifically, there is a very close connection between the College English Test¼ˆCET¼‰and college English teaching in China. (Gu, 2005; Li, 2009; Ceng, 1999; Shao, 2003) The CET is proved that it is an effective means of measurement for its result can accurately reflect the College English teaching and learning situation both of one university at different stages and different universities at the same stage. (Gu, 2005) With a great number of elements which can affect the CET and the college English teaching and learning, in second part of this essay I discuss the existence and the nature of the CET backwash.

However, there are a great many of weakness which shouldn’t be neglected, it is eager to find out some ways and means to achieve the beneficial washback of the CET to assist the college teaching efficiently. In the last part of this essay, I will give some suggestion how to promote the beneficial backwash of the CET with the theory of foreign language acquisition.

The influence of tests on teaching- backwash

1.1 Definition of Backwash

The influence of testing on teaching and learning which can be either beneficial or harmful is defined as backwash (it is known as washback as well). (Bailey, 1996: 259; Buck, 1988: 17; Hughes, 2003: 1). According to Taylor (2005), the backwash of tests has affected on numerous aspects of educational processes for a long time. It could believe that language tests’ backwash has been influencing on language teaching and learning constantly. As Hughes (2003:1) points that the test which is regarded as a significant one could command all relative teaching and learning activities. Specifically, the term backwash has been regarded as the way in which tests influence on teaching such as: designs of curriculum, choices of teaching materials, and conductions of classes. (Hughes, 2003:2) Therefore, the testing is playing an important role in what is taught in teaching context and how it is underway.

However, the backwash of language tests would be regarded as either positive or negative. When the testing exerts the beneficial influence on language teaching, it could enhance the good teachings and reflect the bad teaching correctively as well. And the testing can play the role in language teaching as a partner of that process, which is perceived as an accurate relationship between teaching and testing. (Hughes, 2003:2) Otherwise, when a test’s content and testing techniques are aimed to assess the restricted language ability only such as some tests doesn’t test learners necessary language abilities (listening, speaking, writing and reading) directly, it would exert the harmful influence on language teaching. (Hughes, 2003; Taylor, 2005). The negative backwash would mislead teachers and learners to concentrate on doing what is regarded as unnecessary for achieving high score, and narrow the teaching/learning context as well. (Alderson & Wall, 1993; Taylor, 2005) Although language tests play a decisive role in language teaching and learning, the influence of them may show different results in different teaching and testing situation.

1.2 Factors influenced by the backwash

The result of studies shows the backwash for several views of language teaching in classroom to a certain extent, such as: ‘curriculum, materials, teaching method and content, attitude and behavior, and learning’. (Spratt, 2005; Cheng, 1997)

In the view of the curriculum, tests are always regarded as one of references for the change of curriculums. (Pearson, 1988) In addition, Alderson (1986) agrees that the innovation of language testing is considered as an influential factor which can cause the innovation of language curriculum. However, Vernon (1956) emphasizes that some teachers always overlook parts of curriculum which couldn’t conduce to raise scores of tests directly for they concentrate on training test excessively. Besides the testing, there are many other factors such as the nature of course, the class size, stakes of tests, and schools could affect curriculum as well. (Alderson & Wall, 1993; Lam, 1994; Lyon, 1996; Read & Hayes, 2003; Watanabe, 1996) Therefore, it can conclude that in various teaching and testing situation, the backwash for the curriculum will show in different ways, and backwash may not exist in some situations at all yet. (Spratt, 2005)

The aspect of backwash for teaching materials, many researches point that the revision of language testing can cause the innovation of language teaching materials usage as well. (Alderson & Lyons, 1996; Watanabe, 2000) In addition, some studies point that when the language test gets closer the backwash for the selection of language teaching materials is greater. (Alderson & Wall, 1993; Lumley & Stoneman, 2000; Alderson & Lyons, 1996) Besides, we can’t neglect that the aim of choosing and using some teaching materials is to improve relevant language abilities and some is to enhance testing techniques merely. (Spratt, 2005) Consequently, tests can impact the usage of teaching materials, but is not the main factor to determine it.

For the view of teaching methods and content, Spratt (2005) sports that tests especially high-stakes tests can affect the implementation of teaching activities and the choosing of teaching contents. For example, the study of TOEFL from Alderson and Lyons (1996) indicates that teachers’ teaching techniques and classroom activities have a great many difference between TOEFL and non- TOEFL classes. Moreover, high-stakes tests would let teachers to spend lots of class time in simulating tasks of tests or promoting techniques and strategies of tests. (Shohamy, 1996) However, some researches find that some teachers believes students’ efficient language skills play the most important role in passing language tests. (Watanabe, 2000) Therefore, it could conclude that testing is not the only factor to lead the variety of teaching methods which is related to the diversity of teachers and teaching contexts as well.

In the aspects of attitude and behavior, Pearson (1988) points that testing has impacts which are both in positive and negative side on attitudes, behavior, and motivation among teachers, students, and parents. For instance, students always recognize that tests let them study hard for achieving high scores, however they also worried about testing cannot reflect their all learning aspects accurately. (Cheng, 1998) Furthermore, some teachers think that testing is a proper way to ensure whether aims of syllabus have been achieved. (Morris, 1972) Nevertheless, testing always soaks students, teachers, and parents in the atmosphere of anxiety and fear, as all of them worried about the result of tests. (Shohamy, 1996) Under this kind of pressure, students couldn’t play their normal level; at the same time teachers would do whatever can help their students to achieve higher scores. (Alderson & Wall, 1993; Spratt, 2005)

The connotation for considering the backwash for learning is to discuss whether language testing can make students learn more and better. (Wall, 2000) Studies with mentioning students’ learning strategies and performance point that in the particular testing context students’ test scores would have at least ten percent improvements through several months of related conduction for testing preparation. However, we are not sure whether these finding can be applied to other learning and testing context. (Smith, 1991) Moreover, Andrew (2002) emphasize that after preparing the oral part of language tests some students just could achieve testing strategies and learn ‘formulaic’ expression by rote but couldn’t interact meaningfully or appropriately yet.

1.3 Factors affect the backwash

The teacher, the school and the exam itself are known as the influential elements which can affect the occurrence and the nature of the backwash. (Spratt, 2005; Alderson & Wall, 1993)

Above all, the most important factor which can affect the backwash is the teacher. Specifically, all of teachers’ belief about teaching and testing, teachers’ attitudes towards the test, teachers’ educational level and experience, and teachers’ own personality will impact whether backwash exists and it is beneficial or harmful. (Smith, 1991; Alderson & Wall, 1993; Alderson & Lyons, 1996; Watanabe, 1996; Shohamy, 1996, Spratt, 2005)

Moreover, the size of school, the education philosophy of school, and the attitude towards tests of school’s administrator are regarded as the factors which can influence the backwash. (Watanabe, 2000; Smith, 1991; Read & Hayes, 2003) According to Alderson and Wall (1993), schools can curb the appearance of the backwash and affect its nature even for communicative tests.

In addition, test itself would be able to impact the existence and the quality of backwash. (Spratt, 2005; Alderson & Wall, 1993) Morrow (1986) asserts that the language test which can measure candidates’ ability of language application can be considered as a qualified test with powerful and beneficial backwash.

In summary, language testing can exert influence on language teaching and learning indeed, but it will present as either positive or negative. As the backwash can impact lots of aspects of language teaching and learning process; the existence, the nature, and the deep of it must be diverse in different views. Moreover, the backwash is also affected by some elements, so its nature must be independent in different teaching or testing context neither. Therefore, the backwash will be shown in extremely different states in different teaching and testing context. Even though in a particular situation, each aspect of the backwash must be different neither.

2. The backwash for College English Test (CET) in college English teaching across China

2.1 Introduction of CET in China

The College English Test (CET) is a national unified test which is sponsored by High Education Department of the Minister of Education of China and administrated by The National College English Testing Committee. (CET Testing Committee) After completing the English foundation course in the second school year, all of university students across China are permitted to participate in this test. (Yang, 2000) There is national wide range of stakeholders (teachers, students, and administrators) involved in this test. In other words, the CET can be regarded as a “high-stakes” test. Besides, it is proved that the CET is an effective means of measurement for its result can accurately reflect the CE teaching and learning situation both of one university at different stages and different universities at the same stage. (Gu, 2005) As the high status and reputation of this test, passing the CET-4 is regarded as a qualification to obtain the B.A degree among the majority of Chinese universities.

Therefore, there is an extremely close relationship between the CET and the College English teaching and learning indeed. Furthermore, the results of many researches show that the CET can exert beneficial washback on The CE teaching and learning. (Li, 2009; Gu, 2005; Shao, 2003) Specifically, the execution of College English Teaching Syllabus has been promoted in CE teaching and learning by the CET. (Gu, 2005) However, there is harmful influence on CE teaching and learning from the implementation of CET as well. (Li, 2009; Gu, 2005; Shao, 2003) Excessive using of “coaching materials” makes classroom teaching be confined for preparing the test, which results textbooks can’t be completed ideally. (Gu, 2005) The washback of CET on CE teaching and learning is either positive or negative and will be discussed specifically as follows.

2.2 The positive backwash of the CET

We have discussed that the teacher, the school, and the test itself are the main elements which can affect the existence and the nature of washback on language teaching and learning above.

Practically, as the CET is a “high-stakes” test, it makes all of administrators, teachers, and students to think highly of it. (Hughes, 2003) Moreover, one of the CET’s aims is to promote the implementation of College English Curriculum Requirements in College English teaching and learning. (CET Testing Committee) In other words, to think highly of the CET among participants could be seem as to attach importance to College English teaching and learning. Therefore, one of the positive wahback of the CET is that it can guarantee the basic stage of implementation of college classroom English teaching.

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Moreover, according to the validation study of the CET (Yang & Weir, 1998) shows that the CET is a highly reliable and valid test with rational design and can measure non-English majors’ English proficiency exactly and objectively at the tertiary level across China. So it can guarantee that the CET can provide the sensible feedback to assist college English teachers and students to promote their teaching and learning.

The most important factor to warrant the positive washback is the design of question forms. (Gu, 2005; Li, 2009) Specifically, in order to fully reflect the importance of listening ability, the part of listening comprehension occupies a considerable proportion in the CET. Besides, the question forms contain not only the objective choice but also the subjective dictation with relatively diversity. Moreover, the selection of subject includes both narrative passages and dialogues with strong practicability. As reading is one of the main resources to achieve the information for people, training reading ability play a significant important role in college English teaching requirements. For meeting this demand, the CET has appreciable amount of reading tests with rational question form design. All of the selected reading texts are in the form of discourse. For the great percentage of listening and reading in CET, both teachers and students think highly of promoting these two kinds of abilities actively. Furthermore, as the productivity and practicability of these parts of tasks, teachers pay more attention to use of authentic teaching materials. (Gu, 2005; Shao, 2003) By this way, students’ applied language abilities can be developed essentially. Gradually, with the abilities development, students’ confidence and interesting on learning English has been enhanced as finding themselves can read original English discourse and understand English radio and TV programs days after days. Therefore, the other positive washback of the CET is that it can innovate college English teaching and promote college teaching and learning level across China.

Tests of writing and speaking are the most important means to measure whether students have the ability of language application (Hughes, 2003). As the writing part in the CET, it sets the tasks and selects the samples as expression of attitude and information with all students’ familiar topic to evaluate students’ communicative applied ability in written English. (Gu, 2005; Shao, 2003) It guides a clear direction for teachers’ teaching and students’ learning so that they can understand the centre of college English teaching and learning of non-English major has converted from knowledge of language to language itself. In other word, this kind of washback makes both teachers and students pay more attention on training of language application. For the speaking test of CET is optional, which means a student must get an exact higher score in the written part of the CET (more than 560 points in the CET-4 and more than 530 in the CET-6) who can be permitted to participate in the oral part of the CET. (Li, 2009; Gu, 2005; Shao, 2003) In order to achieve the opportunity to take part in speaking test, most of students eager to get the highest possible scores in written part. At the same time, it motivates students study hard. As it is regarded as extrinsic motivation which is not as good as the intrinsic one but is better than nothing. (Alderson & Wall, 1993) With achieving higher scores, students’ integrated language abilities have been improved efficiently. Above all, the part of speaking of the CET exerts the beneficial washback on college English teaching and learning as they enhance the initiative of students.

2.3 The negative washback of the CET

However, as the students’ performance of the CET is an important symbol of English teaching quality in each college and also the focus of competition among them in China, the results of the CET are given undue importance. (Li, 2009; Gu, 2005; Shao, 2003) Specifically, in the fourth semester teachers just use the CET-oriented materials completely such as various simulated tests and the former CET papers to prepare the CET which is coming in June without any active classroom activity among students. They believe that test-oriented materials can help students to familiarize the test format and train their time management skill so that enhance the passing rate. (Gu, 2005) Using them as teaching materials in classrooms is inappropriate, as the CET is just the measurement not the purpose of college English teaching. Therefore, on the aspect of English teaching time distribution, there has been a phenomenon that the regular teaching time has been compressed and the curriculum has been distorted among a great many of universities. Moreover, as the part of speaking in the CET is still optional until now, it must let teachers and students neglect to promote the oral ability during the period of test preparation. In this teaching environment, students are forced to face a lot of papers practice and the inevitable appearance of students’ ‘dummy English have become increasingly unusual. Finally, students’ integrated applied abilities haven been promoted adequately with the lack of productive language skills training.

Moreover, the score and the certificate have the considerable influence on opportunity of students’ future learning and job. (Li, 2009; Gu, 2005; Shao, 2003) It potentially makes some students regard achieving the CET Certificate as their final goal of learning English during their undergraduate study period. Consequently, after passing the CET, lots of non-English major students don’t attach importance on English learning any more with this shallow attitude. Therefore, the CET can’t motivate students to learn English intrinsically.

On the aspect of test itself, it restricts students’ real language ability and interactive language ability. According to Krashen (1982), the most effective way for people to acquire language is achieving ‘comprehensible input’. Only this kind of language input which is slightly higher than learners’ current level can help learners obtain the better learning effect. As excessive emphasis on the initiative of the CET, the objectivity and impartiality of the score, the stability of the test level, the most of question forms of the CET are the multiple choices. (Li, 2002) Hence, students stray from the right path of learning English with the neglect of the cultivation about real language input and communicative ability training to concentrate on grammar, lexical analysis, testing skills unduly.

In summary, the CET itself does exert the certain influence on the college English teaching in China. However, the research (Gu, 2005) shows that some schools and some classes which use textbooks and other teaching materials creatively have the better performance and higher scores in the CET. Therefore, the effects of the CET are much less than other elements’ such as the attitudes of schools, teachers, and students towards the CET; teachers’ teaching level; teachers’ academic level; teaching methods; and students’ initiative. The CET is just a very small part of the whole college English teaching system. Besides, as there are a great many of weakness which shouldn’t be neglected, it is eager to find out some ways and means to achieve the beneficial washback of the CET to assist the college teaching efficiently.

Promote the beneficial washback of the CET

As there is a close relationship between the CET and the college English teaching indeed, the CET not only can but also should exert beneficial backwash on college English teaching. Therefore, we attempt to find out the way how we can achieve as more backwash as possible. The possible suggestion will be argued as follows:

Aim to college teaching syllabi, adopt a large number of direct language testing

Direct language testing means testing communicative language skills directly with using as many authentic texts and tasks as possible. (Hughes, 2003) Using direct language testing can measure students’ skills what we would like to foster efficiently and promote the implementation of related practice for those skills sufficiently during the regular teaching time. (Bachman, 2000) Therefore, in the CET using a great many direct language testing so that test whether students have the effective communicative language ability in the certain context. In this way, we would be able to encourage students to practice those interactive language skills as much as possible. Consequently, we can obtain the beneficial backwash from the CET to college English teaching in China as figure 1 shows.

Sample tasks of writing test as much authentically and practicably as possible

Adding numerous authentic and practicable tasks in writing test can promote the unpredictable of the CET. In addition, the creativity of teaching and learning can be developed rather than concentrate on what they can predict. (Hughes, 2003) Consequently, students’ expression ability in written English can be promoted exactly.

3.3 Give the same importance to speaking test as others’

Change the part of speaking in the CET to be compulsory rather than optional. Some research shows that Chinese college students’ oral ability is the weakest one among others. (Ceng, 1999) According to that, promoting their oral ability must be enforced. Testing the abilities which you want to incent can achieve the beneficial backwash of test sufficiently. (Hughes, 2003) Therefore, adding the oral part in the whole CET compulsorily can motivate teachers and students to promote this skill consciously.

3.4 Provide assistance to teachers in order to adapt the new test pattern

Introduction of a new pattern of the test may lead many teachers feel they don’t adapt it. (Hughes, 2003) Transfer the CET from grammar and vocabulary oriented to be more communicative would make a large number of teachers feel they are not familiar to enhance students’ communicative skills. Therefore, essential training and assistance for teachers could avoid imbalance and chaos to support the help to teaching.

3.5 Reduce the status of the CET

The figure 2 shows the relationship between the CET and the college English teaching and learning currently. Therefore, if make the provision that is changing the CET from the compulsive test to be the optional test during undergraduate study. Besides, abolish all unreasonable regulations which stipulate CET certificate is one of qualifications to obtain the B.A degree. This is the basic condition to reform college English teaching with getting rid of test-oriented education. We could achieve the positive backwash of the CET to establish more harmonious relationship (which is shown in figure 3) between the CET and the college English teaching in China.

To summarize, the innovation of the CET to be more communicative, more practicable, more productive would be able to promote the beneficial backwash of it to influence college English teaching across China energetically.


The present essay has discussed the relationship between the language testing and language teaching and learning from generally to specifically. The effect of the language testing is defined as backwash to impact several views of language teaching and learning. In a certain teaching and testing context, the backwash of CET has been known as to affect the implementation of the college English teaching curriculum; the using teaching materials; the teaching method and content; the administers’, the teachers’, and the students’ attitudes towards college English teaching and learning. Additionally, as there are some elements affect the deep and the nature of the CET backwash, it presents either beneficial or harmfully in different aspects of the college English teaching across China. Finally, with some theories of language testing and foreign language acquisition this essay have illustrate some proposals how to achieve as more beneficial backwash of the CET as possible.

However, as the importance of communicative college English teaching is a growing concern, the demands of the productivity, the practicability, and the communicability of the CET have been received greater attention in China. Therefore, it needs to invest more and research to enhance the quality of the CET so that promote the beneficial backwash of it to cooperate with the college language teaching and learning perfectly.


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