We acquire a language either consciously or unconsciously. Proficiency in a native language is acquired unconsciously. Consequently, studying a second language is an example of conscious language learning. Interestingly, studying a second leads to awareness of other people’s culture and promotes competence in students. Students who have studied a second language outshine other students in almost every subject. Conversely, acquiring and gaining proficiency in a second language requires one to follow certain rule and guidelines. A means of assessment and testing is hence required to ensure compliance with this rules and guidelines. Proficiency tests are the main tools of assessing and testing level of acquisition and competence in a second language of choice. English is essentially the language of choice to many people globally. The number of nonnative English speakers exceeds that of native speakers. As a result, most communication in English now occurs among nonnative speakers. It is hence the most widely taught second language in the world. Dwelling on this reality, this paper analyses the current methods of second language assessment and testing using English as a reference point. Additionally, there is a lack of a precise and unified theory of second language testing and assessment. Testing English is no exception and, in fact, takes lead in this confusion. Second language testing and assessment research then becomes an area if interest to many scholars. This paper, while taking in to consideration English language testing and assessment theories, critically looks at the pros and cons of international proficiency tests such as IELTS and TOEFL.
Some scholars recommend changes on how English and other second languages are taught and assessed. For instance, Roger cites McKay as underlining the inevitable changes that will occur to English naturally. McKay continues to say that these changes should be recognized as one of the consequences of using English as an international language. Furthermore, these changes should only stand as long as they do not affect intelligibility in its use. Therefore, these changes must be taken in to consideration when assessing and testing acquisition of a second language.
Although there might be substantial compromise on assessing and testing proficiency among second language education evaluators, there is currently no empirically confirmed description. Stressing this point Stern maintains that a concept of proficiency has several interpretations but has not achieved a satisfactory outcome. Iyldyz further reiterates that there is also lack of a precise and unified theory of second language testing and assessment. As a result, various theories have been formulated on how proficiency in English can be assessed.
English as a second language requires the application of the intelligibility concept-just like any other language. This makes it possible to teach and assess English while considering varying linguistic norms and different levels of a student’s language competence. On the contrary, proficiency tests such as IELTS continues to use vocabulary, grammar, cohesion, and coherence as the underlying factors that gauge proficiency in English. This disregard other useful factors such a cultural background in testing ones proficiency in English. Aryadoust cleared states that this problem is prevalent while assessing written English. Second language testing as a communicative test not only entails, for this reason, knowledge and ways of using it but also the manifestation of this knowledge in day to day use.
Task based language teaching and learning is also paramount when it comes to second languages. This is because task based language teaching uses distinctive tasks as central elements in syllabus design and teaching. In other words, task based language teaching requires that syllabus content be precise on learning tasks. The process rather than the product becomes the focal point. Iyldyz while explaining the communicative competence theory, further agrees on this second language teaching concept. He illustrates language proficiency as the ability to execute tasks that use a language.
It should also be acknowledged that tests have become a powerful tool for decision making in today’s competitive society. Individuals are constantly evaluated with to determine their achievement and abilities. Consequently, how to perform better on tests has become a big concern for students and teachers than anything else. However, just like any other second language taught, proficiency in English takes native speakers’ competence as a point of reference. Use of intelligibility concept should thus be emphasized by all second language evaluators. This is because intelligibility concept shifts the attention from the native speakers to the nonnative while teaching and gauging proficiency in a second language.
Adding salt to injury, development of tests which covers proficiency in broad has been derailed by lack of a theoretical consensus on what knowing a language demands and which components of it should be tested or assessed. The most difficult thing in language proficiency testing and assessment is thus to determine which view should be used-performance or competence. In a normal proficiency test, testing is associated with accuracy and its outcomes are only represented by figures. This clearly shows that description of proficiency in second language testing has been dominated by a psychometric principle. International proficiency test such as IELTS and TOEFL employ this principle. In this regard, performance is not a consideration when assessing and testing second language proficiency. The psychometric principle is still practiced even in the height of the debate on whether proficiency can be scaled or not. Iyldyz states that, by having various degrees of performance it is difficult to tell whether one has one or different proficiencies. At any given situation one will have different proficiencies in a language depending on what is being tested. Following this, a person’s second language proficiency cannot hence be scaled and assigned a specific score. This will be inappropriate for communicative testing. Tests also do not provide feedback for instruction and learning as it is difficult to interpret scores.
According to Hyatt and Brooks high scores in international second language proficiency tests do not translate to high scores in student academics. Some students have reached high levels on proficiency tests but are unable to use language in academic or communicative situations. A purely numerical proficiency scales like the TOEFL gives a language attainment level that oversimplifies language learning. The two scholars also maintains that a number of studies have concluded that academic performance is not dependent on IELTS scores. Most studies have actually shown students with high IELTS score perform poorly than those with low scores. On the contrary, Ramser and College found out that students with high second language proficiency scores performed better in class than others those with low scores. They were also more efficient in all aspects of life than other students. An article from the US journal of academics (English Testing) also expounds on the merits of extensively discredited second language proficiency tests such as TOEF. This article explains that such test measures ones ability to incorporate the four key skills in English language. These skills are “listening, writing listening and speaking”.
It can be concluded that existing proficiency testing methods are a concern in second language teaching. Therefore, properly established proficiency scales may have positives in applying appropriate strategies in teaching and learning second languages. In addition, there should be a pluralistic way to gauge proficiency in second languages rather than having a unified notion. This is because popular languages like English take a natural, organic development path which is difficult to predict and control. Combining the current criteria with application and dynamics in the culture of a language will be the future of second language testing.
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