Learning Oriented Assessment: opportunities and difficulties in a high-stakes grammar and vocabulary testing context

Year: 2019

Author: Yang, Ruijin

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

High-stakes standardised English tests may impact significantly on corresponding teaching and learning practices, leading to either positive or negative washback. The context of this study is compulsory EFL testing in Chinese junior high schools: the grammar and vocabulary tasks in the Senior High School Entrance English Test (SHSEET). The test is designed to evaluate students’ English proficiency required by the fifth level of the English Curriculum Standards for Compulsory Education, which aims to develop the overall language use ability and communicative language use. The results of SHSEET are used as proof for senior high school admission and thus the test exerts tremendous influence on teaching and learning. However, whether it can achieve the learner-centred goal in curriculum or not remains largely unknown.

In order to explore the learning-oriented potential during test preparation, this study employs the principles of Learning Oriented Assessment (LOA) (Carless, 2007; Jones & Saville, 2016; Turner & Purpura, 2016). It thus seeks to explore the synergy between learning and assessment and also reflects positive washback assumptions. This qualitative research, focusing on teachers, used convenience-sampling and collected data in two phases. The first phase included 15 classroom observations in junior high schools in a southwestern city in China. The second phase contained three semi-structured teacher interviews in the same schools. Thematic analysis was used to analyse these qualitative data using NVivo 12 Pro. The observation findings identified key practices of LOA at the current SHSEET grammar and vocabulary test preparation stage: content-centred interactive activities, feedback, learner autonomy, and learning-oriented teaching methods. The interview findings indicate that the grammar and vocabulary testing in the SHSEET offers LOA opportunities because of its instrumental test function, creating useful language use context and developing language learning abilities. However, although opportunities of LOA exist, the difficulties in implementing LOA at the test preparation stage include students’ differing language proficiency levels, time consideration, the negative power of the test, and teacher-related deficiencies. These findings suggest that to bring positive washback during test preparation, grammar and vocabulary tasks in the SHSEET need improvement and more effective LOA training should be provided to teachers. As LOA literature is an under-researched area, this study contributes to a deeper understanding of washback value through an LOA perspective.