by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon
Indeed change should be good… unfortunately it is not always the case! For the past months, I have seen many modifications to the second language evaluation tests in the Public Service: around September 2007, the reading comprehension test’s content was modified (still 65 questions, but longer and more technical texts), in October, the written expression test went from 55 questions up to 80 (of which 30 were texts to read), then at the beginning of June, the latter was cut by 15 questions (too many complaints on the lack of time). Finally the last one of those newbies is the new oral test version that became effective June 16. Apparently we are in the middle of a “school” reform here, but not necessarily in the students’ best interest!
According to the Public Service Commission, people who were assessed with the new oral test during the pilot said it was top notch (well, they did not use those terms but the report was so enthusiastic!)… Strangely enough, I met a couple of people who had been selected to be in the pilot and they said the new test was more rigid than ever… and of course, they failed! Since I am anything but gullible, I tend to believe the people I met rather than the official report! I wonder why!!!…
The former oral test, although rigid, left the door open on “some” creativity and original thinking. At the beginning of the interview, there was a warm-up period so the evaluated person had the opportunity to relax while speaking about hobbies or personal interests. Then there was the series of typical questions related to work (where do you work, what is your position, what are your responsibilities, etc.?) followed by questions on hypothetical situations and personal opinions. At the end, there was a role play (usually a common situation between colleagues or an employee and a manager). In other words, it was easy to anticipate what would be the questions. Generally the test lasted 45 minutes and it looked, more or less, like a conversation… what I am saying is: it was “possible” to turn it into a conversation; something outgoing people used in their favor!
The new test is quite different. It lasts 20 to 40 minutes and is divided in 4 specific activities:
- Answer questions
- Listen to conversations or voice mail messages
- Answer questions on their content
- Speak (2-3 minutes) on one of the topics proposed by the evaluator (or the computer?)
There is no room at all for any conversation format. The most innovative part of this new test is that all the questions are selected randomly by a computer (don’t worry, there is still a human being there to ask them! for now anyways…)! Prior to the test, people are asked to fill in a form (something they are used to!), which form is scanned so the computer can select the first series of questions… Do I have to mention that ALL questions are work related? I did not think so either… Same with the questions on the tapes, the computer selects them. The recordings are played twice (with no interruption) prior to the questions… I guess it is also intended to test people’s retention. I know I could not pass such a test: I cannot remember the details of a conversation, especially if this conversation is of no interest to me… same thing with a long voice mail message: I will retain the general content but will easily forget about the specifics! EITHER IN MY MOTHER TONGUE OR MY SECOND LANGUAGE!
When I have trainees to prepare for the tests, 4 or 6 weeks prior to the torture, I have no choice but teach them to the tests (something I truly hate!). With the former oral test version, it was quite easy to come up with questions and role plays similar to those that would come up during the interview. Now? Blank!… those tapes could be about anything… the proposed topics could range from work perfomance evaluation to hiring policies (I know for a fact they love asking questions related to human resources… or should I rather say: they loved?).
This whole reform’s purpose is to better standardize the tests. I am asking you: do you think a language can be “quantitatively” measured? Personally I do not believe so… only “qualitatively”. And, as long as the experts will persist in their utopian idea that it can be done, we will sink deeper and deeper into chaos… unless we already reached the bottom with this last reform…
This blog moved here, if you ever are interested in reading more on those issues…