Ethics and Principles in Language Tests
Tests in languages are meant to assess students’ proficiency in the target language. It is important to understand that critical decisions are made about a student basing on the tests that were given and the scores posted by the student. Therefore such tests can have a long-term effect on the student’s life (Tanyer, 2015). That language test results are a core part of the admission criteria in schools and colleges underscores the need to have integrity in the design of these exams. The tests can also lead to the conclusion that a student has not yet mastered a language to pursue a certain degree program. This can have the effect of delaying the professional development of such a student.
Language knowledge and mastery is an abstract phenomenon, and no test can be assumed to be an accurate determinant of the same. Three instances where a student is excellent orally in a language, but weak in the same language in writing. There are also other instances where a student is good at written language, but very weak poor at spoken language. The test in a language should, therefore, follow a code of ethics and principles aim to ensure that tests are as accurate as possible in determining the mastery of the language by the student (Tanyer, 2015). The tests given to the language students have to be as trustworthy as possible, and it is the responsibility of the persons setting the tests to ensure that they are. This entails the ethical approach in the testing of languages, and it involves two aspects that are related. These are reliability and validity.
To examine the reliability if the language tests that are given to the students, there is a need to distinguish the effects of the abilities that being measured from the effects of other factors that influence the outcomes of the tests (Ankita, 2013). To assess the reliability of the language tests that are given to the students, it is important to come up with a description or definition of a set of abilities that the tests are expected to measure. Also, the other factors that are expected to affect the scores should also be listed and defined. Some factors affect language scores for students. These include communicative language ability; test method facets; personal attributes; and random factors (Tanyer, 2015). Communicative language ability refers to the specific abilities that determine how a person performs on an individual test. An example of this is in a test of sensitivity to register. In this instance, the students with the highest level of social-linguistic competence are the ones that register higher scores. Test method facets are concerned with the testing environment, the test rubric and the nature of the expected response with respect to the input (Tanyer, 2015). It also examines whether there is a relationship between the input and responses given in the texts by the students.
Personal attributes entail the personal characteristics and group characteristics. Personal characteristics are the cognitive styles and the content knowledge of the student in particular areas of the language tested. Group characteristics are the gender of the student, the race and ethnic background. Random factors are the unpredictable and temporary conditions such as the emotional state of the student taking the test or their mental alertness (Tanyer, 2015). There are also other uncontrolled differences in the test method facets such as a change in the test environment from one test to another or in the differences in the behavior of test administrators in the carrying out of their responsibilities. The main motive in the usage of the language tests is to make inferences regarding one or more components of a student’s communicative language ability (Ankita, 2013). The random factors and test method facets are the ones used in the measurement of error for the test. This measurement of error is the one that determines the reliability of the language test. Personal attributes are regarded as sources of bias in the test, and can, therefore, be used for testing the invalidity of the test.
Validity has been identified as a crucial determinant of the quality of a language test. This is because the user of a test has to validate the test by presenting evidence that that supports the inference and decisions made as a result of the scores that have been registered by the students in the test. Validation of language tests can be done in three approaches. These include the construct validity, predictive validity and content validity. Construct validity has two approaches, the construct-centered approach and task-centered approach (Ankita, 2013). The task-centered approach has been favored more than the construct centered approach by of the language assessment experts. The premise behind this is that predictions can be made dependent on the student’s ability to accomplish certain tasks (Ankita, 2013). Task-based language performance assessment is regarded as a type of performance assessment where the construct of interest is the task itself. This approach of testing and validity has a prevailing drawback, in that it is limited in scope. It cannot be done beyond a specific testing context, and this makes it limited in the interpretation and generalization of the test results.
Predictive validity and content relevance are the other pivotal validity aspects of language testing that need to be put into consideration. The major aim of language tests is to predict how the student will put the language into use under different specific contexts (Timpe-Laughlin & Choi, 2017). This has contributed in making predictive validity a major concern in the assessment of languages. The accuracy of the prediction that can be made depending on the test results is determined by the content validity of the test (Vaiz, 2014). Content validity has two concepts behind it; content relevance and content coverage. Content relevance is concerned with the extent to which the as aspects of the ability being assessed in the language are actually tested (Liao, 2004). Content coverage, on the other hand, has to do with the extent to which the tasks given adequately reflect the performance in the target context (Vaiz, 2014). This can be achieved by the selection of representative samples of the use of the language in various contexts and then testing on the same.
Problems are likely to arise in the investigation of the validity of language tests. This is the case when the students being tested in the language come from diverse backgrounds, meaning that they have varying needs that the assessment has to cater for (Liao, 2004). A selection of representative samples to cater for the various contexts of language use that the assessment needs to cover can also be a problem (Vaiz, 2014). This is caused by the lack of complete and comprehensive descriptions of language use in various contexts. This can be somehow countered by conducting a needs analysis on the students before the contents and testing parameters for the tests are established (Chiedu & Omenogor, 2014). This narrows down the extent and number of contexts that the person preparing the test has to consider, and can also strengthen the validity of the test (Chiedu & Omenogor, 2014). Other types of validity that are used in the in the evaluation of language tests are criterion validity, consequential validity and face validity. Criterion validity places emphasis on the need for a relationship between the test score and the outcomes. Consequential validity is concerned with the social consequences of a particular test set for a particular purpose. A test is claimed to have face validity if its contents are perceived in the same manner by different language testers and students (Vaiz, 2014).
Principles in Language Tests
When preparing the test, the instructors should respect the human dignity of the students getting tested for their mastery of the language. These students should be given the best possible professional considerations when tests are getting designed (Vaiz, 2014). The needs, values and culture of the students must be considered when the language test is getting prepared.
The language testers should hold all the information that is given by the students in the process of learning the language and taking the tests in confidence. When sharing such information, strict professional judgment should be applied.
Adherence to the relevant ethical principles that have been provided for in the national and international guidelines is demanded of the language testers (Vaiz, 2014). These are to be followed when undertaking a trial, experiment, treatment or any other research activity.
Language testers should not allow the misuse of their skills or knowledge as far as they can. They should instead use them to encourage the students and increase the understanding and achievement of the goals and objectives that have been set for their students.
Language testers should continue to develop and improve their professional language and share the newly gained knowledge with their colleagues and other language professionals.
Language testers have the responsibility of upholding the integrity of the language testing profession. None of them is allowed to forgo this responsibility.
Language testers have the responsibility in their societal positions to improve language testing, assessment and teaching services. They should promote the just allocation of those services and promote to the education of the society regarding language learning and language proficiency (Vaiz, 2014).
Language testers should be mindful of their obligation to the societies and communities that they work. They have to understand that sometimes, these obligations might be in conflict with the interests of the students and other related stakeholders.
Language testers should regularly consider the potential impacts in terms of short term and long term on all the on all the stakeholders of their projects (Vaiz, 2014). On the grounds of conscience, they reserve the right to withhold their professional services.
Language exams are used by learning institutions to assess students’ proficiency in a language. The test results are considered by colleges and college departments when making admission decisions. Employers may use these results as proof that potential employers are capable of conducting business in the target language. In the above ways, language tests may gravely affect the future of students by preventing their admission or employment. For this reason, language exams should pass the reliability and validity test. Ensuring that a designed test is in line with its purpose makes it an appropriate assessment tool that is fair to students. Lack of reliability or validity in the tests can lead to substandard test whose application is incongruent with the context that the student is getting assessed for in terms of the language.
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Chiedu, R. & Omenogor, H. (2014). The Concept of Reliability in Language Testing: Issues and Solutions (1st ed.).
Liao, Y. F. (2004). Issues of validity and reliability in second language performance assessment. Working Papers in TESOL & Applied Linguistics, 4(2), 1-4. Retrieved from http://www.tc.columbia.edu/academic/tesol/wjfiles/pdf/yenfenforum.pdf
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Timpe-Laughlin, V. & Choi, I. (2017). Exploring the Validity of a Second Language Intercultural Pragmatics Assessment Tool. Language Assessment Quarterly, 14(1), 19-35. doi:10.1080/15434303.2016.1256406
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