In almost all European countries, English is the most taught foreign language in primary and secondary education. Most countries use the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (QCER), developed by the Council of Europe to define competence levels in foreign languages that are internationally comparable. At the end of upper secondary education, most countries require at least a B2 level (Upper intermediate – independent user) in the first foreign language. Several countries set a B1 level (Intermediate – independent user). Italy is one of the few countries that requires its students to have reached at least a B2 level at the end of upper secondary education, both for the first and for the second foreign language. (2017 edition of the Key Data on Teaching Languages at School in Europe).
If we consider this data it underlines the importance of the CEFR levels in language learning and how reference to A2, B1,B2 have now become commonplace in Secondary schools in Italy.
This article looks at the value of language certification in education and its’ benefits and long-term effects on students’ lives.
The origins of certification and testing
Records show that the first examples of standardized testing date back to 2200 B.C. when the Chinese emperor examined his officials every third year to determine their fitness for office, a test called the Imperial Examination. From then on individuals and organisations have sought to validate competency. In 1806, England adopted a model of the Imperial Examination to select specific candidates for positions in Her Majesty's Civil Service. This examination system was later applied to education and started to influence other parts of the world, as it became a prominent standard (e.g. regulations to prevent the markers from knowing the identity of candidates) of delivering tests.
Why certification is important?
Exams for young learners and teenagers have increased greatly in popularity over the past few years and most testing boards have adapted their form of testing focusing on the learner to get the best results. Primary learners as young as seven can sit ‘child friendly’ exams that are stress-free, non-competitive and fun to participate in. An example of this is The Pearson Test of English for Young Learners, where the speaking part is carried out with a small group of learners actively participating in a board game. Less pressure more fun and totally inclusive.
The benefits of testing have many positive aspects mainly being that they:
• Motivate learners by rewarding them with something tangible and permanent for their efforts thus increasing their self-esteem and confidence that are crucial to successful language learning.
• Increase incentive, research shows that the classes in which students learn most and for which they study the hardest are the ones in which they are frequently and thoroughly tested.
• Prepare candidates for the exams they will encounter when they are older particularly INVALSI.
• Help to diagnose candidates’ individual strengths and weaknesses and to evaluate the effectiveness of the teaching programme as a whole.
• Allow learners to manage their emotions and learn how to look into themselves and know how behave when under pressure. (Mindfulness)
• Provide essential ‘life-skills’ which are important for future success when applying for University, entering the professional world and increasing employability.
Overall, tests provide feedback and thus can resolve students’, teachers’ and parents’ uncertainties concerning progress. They can also provide a sense of closure to a course, and the satisfaction of passing a test gives students a sense of ‘pride in accomplishment’ (Eggan and Kauchak).
Validity, Reliability and fairness
It is true to say that when choosing a trusted exam board such as Pearson Edexcel Qualifications, it is guaranteed that their tests have been rigorously piloted and tested which ensures validity (the consistency of a test’s judgement and results), reliability (the truth of the test in relation to what it is supposed to evaluate) and fairness. Regardless of whether the goal of the examination is to make a pass/fail decision or to provide a ranking of test-takers, the examination must be valid, reliable and fair. An examination that is used to grant or deny certification must be developed with these requirements in mind as the exam is being developed. It is both inefficient and difficult to go back and address these requirements after an exam has been created.
Value to Institutions
With the onset of CLIL in high schools in Italy there has been a rise in courses offering preparation for English language exams or some institutions becoming Pearson Edexcel schools that offer other subjects in English with the final aim to pass an IGCSE. In addition to advancing or maintaining a school’s reputation, this has resulted those schools becoming preferred and trusted authority in the eyes of certificants, employers and the public.
Exam Stress and Mindfulness
Amy Malloy has given much insight into the reality of exam stress, the teenage brain and mindfulness. She reports that ‘in the current reality of education, exams are reportedly perceived by teenagers in secondary education as their top cause of stress, over body image and peer pressure’. She goes on to explain how stress is triggered by exams and importantly notes that stress is not a weakness and is perfectly normal. However for teenagers this is added to by constant developmental changes which contribute to stressful situations seeming so much more stressful.
On this evidence, it highlights the importance of introducing mindfulness and other such relaxation and mindset techniques into the classroom. A valuable life tool that can be applied to so many facets of today’s life and provide mechanisms for how to move on healthily and productively.
Test preparation and format
It is important that tests are offering real life, authentic, opportunities to demonstrate language comprehension abilities. PTE Young Learners uses real-life every day situation scenarios rather than grammatical exercises, which means students are measured on real practical English and the exam reflects real life situations, which students can relate to and this makes it easier for the students to perform well. The format of the test is enjoyable. The spoken part consists of a board game played with a group of other test takers. Students have fun throwing the dice, moving a counter around the board and asking and answering questions.
The Pearson Test of English (PTE) General assesses the four skills: listening, reading, speaking and writing. Test takers are required to successfully complete real life tasks, such as writing messages, understanding talks and presentations, understanding newspaper articles or participating in conversations. Most of the texts used to assess reading and listening are authentic. They are sourced, for example, from books, magazines, newspapers, websites, radio broadcasts, recorded messages and podcasts. Hence PTE General is a measure of real, practical English. Moreover, the Speaking part of the test offers the ever-useful tool of debate whereby candidates are involved in a discussion item type that tests ability to discuss a concrete or abstract issue.
Pearson also publishes the Pearson Test of English Young Learners – Top Tips and Practice for Firstwords and Springboard, which ensures the students are prepared for all exam tasks and grammar and vocabulary which they will find in the exam. Students have access to all of the audio through the Pearson MYAPP this means they can listen to the audio at home on a mobile phone or tablet. The PTE General Tutorial provides an interactive tour of the test to give you a detailed overview of the tasks and skills assessed at each of the six levels. The PTE General Skills Boosters offer guided practice of tasks within the test, grammar and vocabulary activities, a writing guide and five practice tests. These resources ensure that students will practice exam task types and will know what to expect on the day of the exam.
Finally, it is important to remember that certification is a great way to develop the skills of analysing options, making decisions, understanding why we make certain choices, therefore excellent at boosting confidence. But most of all, teachers need to remind their students it is important that they do their best and that their best is good enough!
“Life doesn't require that we be the best, only that we try our best.”
- H. Jackson Brown Jr.