The Power and Impact of Standardised Tests

Investigating the Washback of Language Exams in Greece

by Lambrini Loumbourdi (Author)
©2014 Thesis X, 188 Pages


Standardised tests and language certification exams have been a popular topic in the field of assessment for many years now. The washback effect of such tests, that is how and to which degree language tests influence teaching and learning, has been the focus of several research projects in various contexts with different results, but at the same time of significant importance. Investigating the impact and consequences of tests is a great step towards creating better and fairer tests. This book focuses on a research study of the washback effect of the FCE test (First Certificate in English), developed and administered by Cambridge English Language Assessment (formerly ESOL). The context of the study is Greece, where unique socioeconomic elements and characteristics have rendered language certification increasingly important and have significantly contributed to the quality and quantity of the washback effect produced.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Acknowledgements
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Chapter 1 Introduction
  • 1.1 The issue of interest in the research
  • 1.2 The Greek ELT context
  • 1.3 The FCE exams
  • 1.3.1 The exams in general
  • 1.3.2 Structure of the FCE test and the Greek test takers
  • 1.3.3 Intended washback of the FCE
  • Chapter 2 Literature Review on washback
  • 2.1 Language tests and their effects
  • 2.2 The general impact of testing
  • 2.2.1 Test impact and washback
  • 2.2.2 Categorisation of the different forms of impact
  • 2.3 The washback effect
  • 2.3.1 A general review of the washback effect over time
  • 2.3.2 According to quality: positive and negative washback
  • 2.3.3 According to quantity: high and low/strong and weak washback
  • 2.3.4 Other categorisations
  • Chapter 3 The Research Methodology
  • 3.1 Introduction
  • 3.2 Rationale of the initial study
  • 3.3 Answers and goals aimed at by the study
  • 3.4 Triangulation in the research
  • 3.5 The construction and use of the interviews
  • 3.6 The teachers
  • 3.7 The interviews
  • 3.8 The process of the interview analysis
  • 3.9 Findings of the interview analysis
  • 3.9.1 The general status of the FCE exam
  • 3.9.2 Exerted influence of the exams
  • 3.9.3 Language skills
  • 3.9.4 Language performance
  • 3.10 An initial discussion of the findings
  • 3.11 The findings and the way forward
  • 3.12 Pre- and post-test washback
  • 3.13 Immediate and delayed washback
  • 3.14 Statement of the research proposal
  • 3.15 An analysis of the methods of research used
  • 3.15.1 The questionnaires
  • 3.15.2 Questionnaires to the teachers
  • 3.15.3 Questionnaires to the students
  • 3.15.4 Limitations in the questionnaires
  • 3.15.5 Validity and reliability of the research
  • 3.16 Classroom observation
  • 3.17 Observation procedures
  • 3.18 Observation schemes
  • Chapter 4 Discussion
  • 4.1 Analysis of the students’ questionnaire 1
  • 4.2 Analysis of the students’ questionnaire 2
  • 4.3 Analysis of the teachers’ questionnaire
  • 4.4 Analysis of the COLT observation tool, Part A
  • 4.4.1 Participant organisation
  • 4.4.2 Content
  • 4.4.3 Content control
  • 4.4.4 Student modality
  • 4.4.5 Materials
  • 4.5 Critical review and limitations of COLT
  • 4.6 Analysis of the WOT observation tool
  • 4.6.1 The observation scheme and rationale
  • 4.6.2 The coding scheme
  • 4.6.3 Classroom observation outcomes
  • 4.6.4 Alignment with exam specifications
  • Chapter 5 Conclusions
  • 5.1 Description of the research
  • 5.2 Combination of the findings
  • 5.2.1 Students’ questionnaires
  • 5.2.2 Teachers’ questionnaires
  • 5.2.3 Classroom observations
  • 5.2.4 Proposal for a new model of washback
  • 5.2.5 Implications of the study
  • 5.2.6 The power of tests: national and international implications
  • 5.2.7 Contributions of the study and future research
  • Bibliography
  • Appendix
  • Appendix 1
  • Appendix 2
  • Appendix 3
  • Appendix 4
  • Appendix 5
  • Appendix 6
  • Appendix 7
  • Appendix 8
  • Appendix 9
  • Appendix 10
  • Appendix 11
  • Appendix 12
  • Appendix 13

← X | 1 → Chapter 1 Introduction

1.1 The issue of interest in the research

The area of testing is very extensive and offers several opportunities for research. The concept of washback is one of the most prominent, and was chosen as the focus of this book. The idea of washback, briefly explained, is how and to which degree tests influence teaching and learning. According to its quality it can be characterised as either positive, having a beneficial influence on teaching and learning, or negative, having detrimental effects. According to the quantity by which it is produced it is high, when the effects are very significant and are created by important exams, or low. That type of washback is by other researchers referred to as strong or weak: “If the test has a strong effect, then it will determine everything that happens in the classroom, and lead all teachers to teach in the same way toward the exams. On the other hand, if a test has a weak effect, then it will affect only a part of the classroom events, or only some teachers and students but not others” (Watanabe, 2004: 20). The investigation of such a phenomenon would give at the same time the opportunity to look into one of the most popular standardised exams. The object of this investigation will be the FCE test (First Certificate in English), one of the most frequently taken English exams in Greece, and the purpose of this research will be to explore the washback produced during and after the preparation and administration of the particular exams. Within the frame of this project, answers will be ventured regarding if and why certain attitudes are observed and how are teaching and learning perceptions shaped by the influence of the test.

1.2 The Greek ELT context

Foreign languages in Greece are taught through two main educational institutions: firstly, there is the public, or state schools, with two to three hours of English a week in Junior High school, according to the level (information obtained from the site of the ministry of education: http://archive.minedu.gov.gr/el_ec_category84.htm accessed on 10.5.11). Also, English is taught from the ← 1 | 2 → fourth grade, in some cases even the third grade, in Elementary schools. Recently, in some schools, English lessons were introduced in a pilot project from the first and second grade. Books are mainly chosen by the teachers, from a list of books comprised by the Ministry of Education, and usually, but not always, students are divided into two levels: beginners and advanced. Secondly, there are also the private institutions, where the majority of English language teachers are employed, with six to ten hours of lessons per week. Usually the schools here allocate the teaching hours with different skills, i.e. there are hours strictly devoted to grammar, speaking skills, listening, reading comprehension, mock testing situations etc. This is common practice for most language schools. Moreover, as Tsagari asserts:

“…teaching and learning English in Greek state schools takes place in a limited linguistic and sociocultural learning environment characterized, among other inherent shortcomings of the system, by outdated models of teaching and learning, mixed ability classes, limited weekly input and lack of effective teacher training programmes. Due to this situation, parents, also prompted by the value Greek society places on English language learning and certification, are led to the decision to enroll their children in English courses offered by foreign language schools” (Tsagari, 2006: 2)

The main reason that this particular environment was chosen as the context of the research, is that the administration and successful preparation for this test is the main objective in private education, as it is for students and their parents too. In other words, placing the research in public schools would not be fruitful, as students are usually not prepared for the particular exams there. As far as private education is concerned now, it is considered to be one of the most important and profitable businesses in Greece, whose main income comes from the fees paid by students preparing for the FCE exams. The growing number of schools and teachers makes competition increasingly harder. Since this book focuses on the FCE exams, only the preparation for these particular exams will be referred to further on. There are several other language certificates (TOEFL, TOEIC, ΚΠΓ) for which relatively limited preparation is offered by private language schools in comparison to FCE. Moreover, the pressure for successful results for the FCE falls heavily on teachers. There are many cases where teachers’ jobs are at stake due to the bad results of one year. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that the commercialisation of education is quite prominent in this context.

Within the context of private language education, two of the exams are considered the most popular, and are among the most highly recognised tests of language proficiency in Greece: the First Certificate in English (FCE), and the more advanced Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE). They are both very important to ← 2 | 3 → candidates, teachers and institutions, and succeeding in them is the ultimate goal for most people attending English lessons. The private language schools responsible for the preparation for these tests constitute a rather unique context, because it is an independent system, where syllabuses, methods, materials and strategies are selected either by the school directors, the teachers or both. Consequently, the method used in every course and the teaching process are chosen mainly by the teacher. The state has no saying in the choice of the approach adopted. The responsibility for how the preparation for the FCE test will take place falls solely on language schools. However, it is exactly this ‘how’ of the preparation, which methodology and materials are chosen that is of interest for this book. There is a general consensus among language teachers that this teaching process is almost predetermined, and it is no other than the ‘teaching to the test’ approach. As a result, the topic of the test’s impact on teaching has proven to be of utmost importance and worth investigating.

1.3 The FCE exams

1.3.1 The exams in general

FCE is a proficiency test administered by Cambridge ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), formerly known as UCLES (University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate – acronyms and names used at the time of the research. It is currently known as Cambridge English Language Assessment). The test falls at the third of five levels of proficiency established by UCLES, characterising the ‘Independent User’ as we are informed (FCE handbook, 1997). In the specifications for the test it is also explained what the people that pass the test can do, which is aligned to CEFR B2 level:

“At this level, a learner should be able to handle the main structures of the Language with some confidence, demonstrate knowledge of a wide range of vocabulary and use appropriate communicative strategies in a variety of social situations. Their understanding of spoken language and written texts should go beyond being able to pick out items of factual information, and they should be able to distinguish between main and subsidiary points and between the gist of a text and specific detail. They should be able to produce written texts of various types, showing the ability to develop an argument as well as describe or recount events [...]. Examinations at Level B2 are frequently used as proof that the learner can do office work or take a course of study in the medium of the language being learnt. Learners at this level can be assumed to have sufficient ability to operate effectively in English in many clerical, secretarial and managerial posts.” (Hawkey, 2009: 224)

← 3 | 4 → As far as the reasons for taking the test, they are further explained: “Hundreds of thousands of individuals take [this test] each year, and it is likely that the majority of these individuals make some sort of personal decisions, such as seeking employment, advancement in career, […] that is determined partly by their scores on these tests” (Bachman et al., 1995: 25). It is taken by candidates in about 100 countries, most of whom are students and 65% of them female. Its increasing popularity is also apparent in the number of candidates taking the exams which has significantly risen with time: 166,713 in 1990, 251,599 in 1996 and 263,380 in 1999 (Hawkey, 2009: 131). Interestingly enough, what is also pointed out in the FCE Handbook (2004) produced by ESOL “Most candidates (about 75%) are under 25, with the average being about 23. In some countries the average age is lower (e.g. in Greece is about 16)” (2004: 4). In a more recent handbook published for the exams, it was mentioned that the average age of the candidates has dropped significantly: “The majority of candidates are aged between 15 and 17” (2007: 4). Also, the candidates’ reason for wanting the specific certificate is, always according to the booklet:

•  37% to gain employment

•  30% for further study

•  33% out of personal interest


X, 188
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (May)
language certification: Sprachzertifizierung Test impact First Certificate in English FCE washback
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. X, 188 pp., 35 tables, 18 graphs

Biographical notes

Lambrini Loumbourdi (Author)

Lambrini Loumbourdi studied English Language and Literature at Thessaloniki University (Greece) and has an MA in TEFL/TESL from Birmingham University (UK). She obtained her PhD in Language Testing and Assessment from Frankfurt University (Germany) and currently works there as a lecturer at the department of Language Teaching research and Didactics.


Title: The Power and Impact of Standardised Tests
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