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How important is large-scale assessment for English teaching?

Assessment – be it small or large-scale – is one element among others that, together, make up educational processes. It has a lot to do with the planning of teaching and is inextricably linked to factors such as teacher training, teaching, the curriculum and access to education. However, in Brazil a large-scale national exam aimed at English teaching still does not exist. What would be the importance of our having an assessment of this kind?

 “When we talk about large-scale assessment, what we’re looking for is to have a nationwide objective”, explains the researcher and lecturer Gladys Quevedo-Camargo, from the Universidade de Brasília (UnB). 

A large-scale assessment for language teaching would contribute to the establishing of standards: without this exam, clear targets and aims are lacking to orient English teaching in Brazil. She stresses that it is important for Brazil to have standards in line with its reality.  

“These standards would be materialized in different types of assessment, one, large-scale and nationwide, and after, smaller-scale ones”, she explains. She makes clear that Brazil would not need to adopt, in its entirety, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages – CEFR), but could have it as a parameter, bearing in mind that our framework would need to dialogue with the European framework of standards. A challenge for this is that the CEFR descriptors are not all suitable for Brazilian reality.  

The researcher and lecturer Matilde Scaramucci, from the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp), agrees: “We need to have our framework, which guides our teaching targets towards our situation.”

Beyond a large-scale assessment, Quevedo-Camargo explains that Brazil needs a language policy: a broader look at particular local needs, which could create planning in multiple arenas. In the case of a country like ours, a linguistic policy would include the preservation of languages, such as the indigenous and those of former slave communities. It should also have in mind the fact of our being the only Portuguese-speaking country among Latin American countries, and also, to develop actions on various levels, that would go beyond the implantation of the compulsory nature of English teaching from the 6th grade onwards, for example. 

Quevedo-Camargo highlights, moreover, that Brazil lacks an institution dedicated to assessing foreign language teaching. “In other countries, they have an institution specialized in the question of assessment; the United States has, Germany, England, Spain, and Portugal”, she remembers.

English language teaching, specifically, also demands careful planning. “We’ve never had a very clear policy in relation to English teaching”, Scaramucci clarifies, stressing that now we have the BNCC to redirect curriculums. “The ideal is to have a well-planned curriculum and a large-scale exam which follows this curriculum. What happens when you have this? You boost this curriculum’s effects, because it brings together what it is proposing – which are teaching aims, and takes up these aims again in the exam”, she explains.  

“Exams are instruments of change”

Frequently, decisions about teaching end up being taken after assessment, from the results that come out. The phenomenon is called retroactive effect or washback. Thus, exams can have more power than the curriculum itself, Scaramucci recalls. “You can stipulate a curriculum, but without doing the exam at the end; in this way, the curriculum won’t be implemented”, she points out. 

She underscores, furthermore, that it is inevitable that people will prepare for existing exams, when these tests are meaningfully relevant for their lives. And this preparation can also lead the student to learn. However, for the exam’s effect on learning to be positive, it is necessary that the assessment has quality and that the teachers are well-trained to be able to promote exam preparation in the best possible way.  

As the researcher stresses, it is essential that teachers understand the proposal of the assessment. “Exams are instruments of change and of redirecting, but, to have good effects, it is necessary to focus on teacher training at the same time”, Scaramucci emphasizes.

English in PISA

An English component is predicted for the 2024 edition of PISA, which was postponed until 2025 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The exam takes place every three years, and for each edition, some components remain the same, while a new one is added. Gladys Quevedo-Camargo believes, however, that an exam such as PISA does not have much potential to organize knowledge, long-term planning and the establishment of targets and objectives. What may happen, she points out, is a spur to action after the test, when the results come out. “The exams, to make a difference to learning, need to make a difference to the lives of those involved. In this sense, PISA is not a very relevant exam”, Scaramucci adds. 

Specialists have different views about assessment and how it connects with other educational processes. “I’m part of a group of people that think assessment is the flagship of education, not an afterthought”, Quevedo-Camargo explains. “If we worked directly with assessment, it would bring about a cascade effect in which there would be parameters, objectives and orientations. Teachers’ biggest complaint is about not having a firmer guide to what they have to do”, she adds.