The future of English language assessment – an interview with Nick Saville of Cambridge English

Nick SavilleWe spoke to Nick Saville, Director of Research and Thought Leadership at Cambridge English Language Assessment, about the current state of language learning and assessment and what he thinks the future might hold.

What’s the problem you’re trying to solve?

One of our roles at Cambridge Assessment is to help people learn, and people learn when they are in school. That is why, if you go to China, you will find several hundred million people attempting to learn English, increasingly from a very young age up to the point when they leave school. The challenge is getting people to a level which is necessary for functional purposes. Evidence shows that people doing something like three hours a week, even if they do that over nine years, only get to a low intermediate level (A2–B1) on the CEFR framework. Many functional purposes are beyond that, and schools are failing to raise the standards to the level which society would like.

Schooling as a concept – having people in a classroom with a teacher – is not going to go away quickly; people’s lives are invested in it. Teachers who are graduating teacher training college are not going to disappear. You are not going to get rid of school, so how can you transform the learning landscape for the better?

How widespread do you think this problem is?

Every time Cambridge Assessment does some form of benchmarking activity it shows very clearly that children leaving school, on average, aren’t getting above the A2 level.

Sweden is a country where they are achieving higher levels of English, but Sweden is a country where English is a language that you can speak English in the street. You can walk around and just talk to anybody and they will respond to you. Turn on the TV and the programmes are in English. But if you go to Paris or Madrid it’s not like that. English is now more widely available, but it is not embedded in society outside the school.

What about the learning that happens in the classroom?

Many kids, certainly the ones who come from backgrounds which don’t promote out-of-school learning, only get their English in the classroom. Often for just 2 or 3 hours a week. The kinds of tasks that you can put together in a classroom do not provide enough exposure to the interactive practice that is conducive to developing effective language for communication.

The classroom is a 19th century technology being used to respond to the needs of the 21st century skills and we are finding that it is inadequate in delivering the desired outcomes. There isn’t enough time and there isn’t enough focus on activities that help to develop communicative competence. In some cases, teachers actually end up just teaching to the test. In this way, the score becomes a proxy for the underlying ability – something that is common in many parts of Asia. When teaching to the test, you don’t encourage the learners to develop communicative ability. Once they have the score, the job is done; there is dissonance between doing a test and learning.

How can we move away from teaching to the test?

In Cambridge, we would argue that our approach is a learning-oriented one and we have always developed a curriculum-based model or test specification designs that favour positive impact; in other words, an approach that doesn’t allow you to teach in a negative way. If a learner is following the syllabus for a Cambridge GCSE, they are tested on what they’ve learned. The same thing transfers, to some extent, to our English examinations; the idea is that learners prepare to take a Cambridge exam in order to learn communication skills. For example, the four skills that are relevant to a CEFR level, like B1. In other words, we would argue that Cambridge tests are designed to have positive washback.

But still learners get stuck at A2

In reality it often comes down to attitudes, motivations, and learning styles. The traditional language classroom doesn’t respond very well to those needs. So, if classrooms aren’t ideal contexts for learning, it is not surprising that we aren’t seeing the desired outcomes of high levels of proficiency. Classrooms simply don’t create the necessary conditions for effective language learning for many learners.

The classroom was actually revolutionary back in the day as it provided access to information and opportunity for all. But certain things are pretty difficult to learn in that way. The challenge for learning a language is that it provides a closed environment where everyone tends to do the same things at the same pace. We need to find ways to “break out of the box” and to connect language learning to language use in more authentic ways.

What do you think the solution is?

People have tried for over 40 years with what we call the ‘communicative classroom’ and there have been some excellent examples of what can be done. That is to create an environment in a classroom that provides the conditions which are more conducive to learning a language. Although this has certainly had some success, the average level of language ability remains low at age 16. When I did French at school, people didn’t seem to care that much about whether you could actually speak French, and functional ability was not properly rated. That doesn’t cut the mustard for English language learners these days. Someone will come along and ask you how good your English is, and a school leaving certificate alone won’t satisfy them. The question is What can you do? And this idea of ‘can do’ has also started to permeate into policy makers’ thinking.

If the important question is ‘What can you do?’, how can that best be measured?

Two things are really key: one is the common understanding of learning when applied to languages, and the other is what progression looks like. Without being able to see that, you won’t know what to do next. This is why learning and assessment have to come together. You can only map that progression by having tasks which are properly calibrated to the current level of the learner. Learning and assessment can’t be separated.

Progression is about linking where you are with where you need to be next in your learning. Think about a task; a learner does something, someone observes them and says whether they are doing it well. ‘That is what I expect to see in your current phase. In your next lesson or in your next course of lessons, why don’t you try these things?’ Having some guidance can help learners assess themselves to see if they are getting any better. So, that is just what we would call normal teaching for most people. They are using a learning task as an assessment.

So, a series of mini-steps is needed to take learners where they want to go. This more diagnostic approach becomes part of the learning construct. When a learner gets to B1, they might go to the next school and the teacher needs to know what they were struggling with and what tasks might help them make progress. The assessment made is all about its impact on learning. It is helping learners move up the ladder; to improve, to do better. In the real world, that matters.

Where do you see the role of technology in this?

One of the reasons why, after 40 years, we are not seeing people coming out of schools with fluent language skills is that the old-fashioned “technology” is not facilitating this outcome. My contention is that, by thinking about the function of the assessment in a more integrated way and by using contemporary, digital technology, you can “break out of the box” and you can engage learners more effectively in the learning process – before, during and after the class. With digital devices, things are “always on”, always available.

People won’t learn things if they don’t interact effectively with the learning task. If they find it boring, they’re not willing to pay enough attention to it.

The way you learn is by doing things you like and a long-term interest is what is needed.

To make language education really work, you need to create a sort of mini ecology where the home, the school and other social contexts can be joined together to provide opportunities for language learning.

You will still need a spine of learning – a curriculum or syllabus – that provides the core of what you want the learners to know, based on a theory of language acquisition.

What do you think the future of assessment looks like?

I have been promoting the idea that education needs to be designed to create the virtuous combination between human and machines, taking advantage of what humans do best and what machines do best. So in this vision, machines are able to collect data and analyse it. And, if they are correctly programmed, can deliver this information packaged up in ways that humans can take advantage of. Humans, when trying to collect data, end up with unwieldy checklists and notebooks and at the end of the day, they can’t do anything with that. Humans need to spend their time doing the things machines can’t do, like encouraging learners and finding better ways to support or motivate them. I’m talking about the kind of things kids remember about their favourite teachers.

Since language teachers are going to make a career out of being in classrooms, you really want to bring out their best assets and they have to be better supported and trained. Above all they have to be comfortable with the new digital technology in order to maximise its potential.

The teacher needs to be the one to facilitate learning as opposed to the one who provides content. The best teachers have always done that. So, teachers need to become more knowledgeable about the opportunities technology provides and to integrate that into their current practices.

Do you think assessment will soon be entirely digital?

The old technology of assessments is not going away anytime soon. A piece of paper on a desk is perceived as very reliable relative to digital technology. Tech is still not trusted yet to deliver the same experience for every kid in the class. I think in five years’ time, though, more people will trust it as we engage in a migration process of changing from paper-based to digitally delivered tests.

More radical is the transformation model, where the main way of providing educational assessment is based on digital data and devices. This will see the disappearance of paper and the traditional exam room altogether. Information about what the learner knows and can do will be collected and validated as the learning happens. If a learner writes an essay ten times on their own and has it graded, we can say they are competent at writing with certain strengths and weakness.

If we’re to collect and validate information as people learn, what might that look like in practice?

We have to be able to give people authentic tasks which are known to be appropriate and calibrated appropriately to the level of proficiency. All the time, we should provide feedback on how the learner is progressing and we have to acquire enough data to say ‘this is enough’ for the learner to be deemed to be proficient at a particular level – such as B1.

This sort of calibration requires us to “learn” from the learners. We need clever people who can implement such a system based on machine learning and computational linguistics working with specialists in pedagogy and assessment. Write&Improve is a good example of this in action.

Cambridge’s approach is to join all these bits together and we are building that capacity.

3 thoughts on “The future of English language assessment – an interview with Nick Saville of Cambridge English”

  1. Good to see you ELTJam engaging a bit more with assessment, but Nick Saville’s responses are inconsistent, vague and shallow and does nothing to help teachers ‘become more knowledgeable’ – clearly teachers will need to go elsewhere if they want to develop any kind of understanding of the issues Saville raises.

    For example, he aspires to ‘giving people authentic tasks’. What does ‘authentic’ mean? How compatible would this be balanced with the competing need to provide ‘reliable’ tests? And what of ‘validity’?

    How ‘authentic’ is it to separate the four skills in assessment? What is the future of integrated tasks?

    What does it mean to ‘collect and validate information as the learning happens’? What would the washback be? Would it be ethical? How could that information be used as feedback to learners at the same time as they’re learning? It doesn’t really make much sense to me because it’s just vague futurism.

    If teachers lose responsibility for and involvement in formative and summative assessment, what would the washback be?

    If our view of learning really that it is like ‘climbing up a ladder’ and the process can be divided up into ‘rungs’ or perhaps, as Thorndike called them 100 years ago, ‘ability-atoms’, how compatible is that with ‘authenticity’ in assessment? What would the washback be of such an approach to assessment? Isn’t that just another iteration of the psychometric approach pioneered by Thorndike and others a century ago?

    What ‘theory of language acquisition’ is Saville thinking of? Do we have one yet? Will we ever have one and, if so, when can we expect it? What happens to curricula in the meantime?

    How ‘authentic’ is an assessment system which ‘delivers the same experience for every kid in the class’? Is that really what ’21st learners’ want? Is it desirable? How is it different from the ’19th century classroom technology’?

    Saville suggests that within five years people will be more trusting of digital assessment. How long has Cambridge been running online tests (e.g. FCE, CAE) – 7 or 8 years? What’s the uptake like? Why is it taking so long for people to accept digital technology in high stakes assessment and why should be believe that this will change in a mere five years?

    So many questions but we unfortunately can’t look to Saville to even pose them for us, let alone offer any coherent answers.

    • Well said Kyle Smith! The only thing we learn from this interview is that the spokesman from Cambridge English Language Assessment – a huge commercial (i.e.profit-driven) operation – has no interest in rocking the good ship ELT and no reaL proposals for change.

  2. Glad to read your opinion on this important topic Nick. Hope you can share more about this in the future as it becomes more widely accepted and understood.


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