It’s exam time again!

Is Teaching for Tests Really Teaching?

​Here in Greece, like in so many countries, people like to collect ‘papers’: degrees, language certificates, diplomas, we even get fancy certificates of attendance when we go to seminars or speeches by publishing companies. (I always laugh that we have to fill in our own name.)

Exams do serve a purpose. In Greece, most students start after-school English lessons at private tutorial schools in 2nd or 3rd grade. So, after six or seven years, parents want a sign that their children have actually learned something, teachers want to prove their worth and students are caught somewhere in between. If they pass the exams, they feel some satisfaction; they have a piece of paper to frame and they also get to stop going to evening classes, freeing up 4–6 hours a week, not including study time. They also have a qualification to show a future employer sometime in the distant future, even if they might not remember much of their language.

However, because exam takers are getting younger and younger (now we often have 6th graders taking the B2 level exam) I wonder if we have got off track somehow. We start working practice tests exclusively a few months before the exam. After the second month of correcting these tests every week, I start questioning if this is really worth it. Are our students learning anything? Is this even educational? The scores don’t seem to go up and we don’t have much time for discussion or explanation. For C2 level high school students, the stress is often overwhelming. I’ll never forget the panic attacks, the tears and the anxiety I’ve seen on students’ faces. And the dates of these English exams always coincide with the grueling month-long school exams our middle school and high school students have to take, no matter how many times we petition for other testing periods.

Now I hear that a testing company is going to start pushing, I mean promoting, the A1 and A2 level exam in Greece (that would be after just two or three years of learning), as they do in other countries. “This will help students be prepared for the test-taking process”, said the company spokesperson. Why should such young children be subjected to this pressure?

Then, there’s the speaking section of these exams. For some of them, it takes months of practice just to teach the format. I’ve known so many students who have passed even C2 level exams and yet wouldn’t be able to communicate in a normal conversation.

Because many students take the exams at such a young age, they often forget what they have learned by the time they really need it — in university or working situations. Or worse, the particular exam they took isn’t recognized, so they have to take a different one.

I propose a more communicative approach. If students actually learn to use the language, really use it to communicate, both in spoken and written form, they will remember it long after the lessons and exams are over.

Thoughts anyone?

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