Proficiency by proxy: language proficiency and test preparation

Photo by Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu on Unsplash

I wonder if your school offers test prep classes for any of the English language tests that are intended to indicate a person’s readiness for academic study in English or to succeed in a professional or daily life in English? Test prep classes – and the test prep industry – have always struck me as being a little strange. What are these tests for? In my naive moments I think they are meant to give a snapshot of a person’s language proficiency at a particular point in time. Looking at a test result, we are supposed to be able to say that on such and such a date, the test-taker’s English was at a certain level of proficiency.

A complication arises because of test preparation. By intensively focusing on the test itself prior to taking it, a learner ‘hacks’ the test so that it may not give a true indication of the learner’s level. The result then is not an indication of the person’s English level on a given date, but of the person’s ability to get a certain score on the test on that date. And the score is everything – because scores have a gatekeeping function for higher education and other purposes, the aim of the learner becomes the score rather than English proficiency as such. The number is a proxy for English proficiency and is treated by gatekeepers as a substitute for actual knowledge about English proficiency.

Now, it isn’t true to say that English proficiency tests have no relationship to English proficiency, but in my experience, a test score that was gained through test prep classes, coaching, and individual study may make learners appear more proficient than they really are. Anectodally, I think we all know of the students who arrived at an institution with a qualifying English test score but who were not able to handle the demands of the English language academic environment. This may have a lot to do with whether the test is truly valid, that is, whether its scores indicate what they are purported to indicate.

Test preparation can be beneficial for language learning, of course. In my own experience, preparing for Japanese proficiency tests gave me motivation and no doubt improved my vocabulary, grammar, and (under controlled conditions) listening ability. Yet even when I passed at a high level – sufficient to be accepted to a Japanese university – I knew that I wasn’t equipped linguistically to handle that level of language. I had prepared intensively to perform well on a limited and somewhat predictable range of tasks.

In spite of these concerns, test prep will continue to thrive because, well, everybody’s doing it and learners put themselves at a disadvantage if they don’t. I hope that as a field we will try to keep language test preparation in its appropriate place, connected to a genuine effort to build practical language knowledge and skills, and never an end in itself, chasing proficiency by proxy.