Test interactiveness: A vital quality

In 1996, Bachman and Palmer¹ published a book on language testing in which they presented six qualities of what they termed “test usefulness”. Most of these qualities–construct validity, reliability, authenticity, practicality, and impact–are familiar to many ELT professionals. The sixth, however, is a term particular to these two authors: interactiveness.

Test interactiveness merits our attention because it is the one test quality that primarily takes into account what language learners bring to a testing situation.  The authors define it as “the extent and type of involvement of a test-taker’s characteristics in accomplishing a test task”. (p. 25) While this definition is rather academic, it reflects their recognition that learners are not “blank slates” but approach a test possessing some degree of language ability, knowledge of different topics, and positive and/or negative attitudes regarding tests. If they have experience with language tests, their knowledge includes a degree of familiarity with certain item types, particularly multiple choice or cloze-type items. Their language knowledge likely favours one or two skills over others: for example, many learners from Asia may well be better at reading than at listening, speaking, and writing, and their grammatical knowledge may exceed that of some native speakers of English! Conversely, learners from other areas of the world may be strongest at speaking or listening. In terms of topical knowledge, older learners have an advantage over younger, and those who have completed a higher education program may well have an advantage over those who began working full-time before or soon after finishing high school.

Because test interactiveness takes into account the learner’s attributes, there is a strong relationship between interactiveness and test difficulty. That is, a learner’s ability to succeed in completing a test or portion thereof successfully depends not only on the complexity of the language they encounter in that test, but also on the extent of their own language ability, their knowledge of the topic presented to them through a particular passage or test prompt (speaking or writing), their familiarity with the test format, and the confidence, motivation, and other affective factors that can influence their performance.

“What do my learners bring to this test?” This is a vital question to ask ourselves as we design tests for English-language learners.”

¹Bachman, Lyle, F. & Palmer, A. S. (1996). Language Testing in Practice. Oxford, Great Britain: Oxford University Press.

***To find about more about test interactiveness or other issues related to language assessment contact the Gordon Moulden to arrange a workshop or presentation.

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