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20 Measuring language ability and making decisions

having the most difficulty with, so that we can provide more focused instruction?
Who should be admitted to postgraduate study in applied linguistics? Which
teachers in our programme seem to be having the most difficulty bringing their
students up to the required standard? Which language programmes in the country
appear to be lagging behind in terms of student performance? Which applicants
for immigrant work permits have a sufficient level of the local language to function
C learly, with regard to some of these decisions, the information provided by the
language test will be sufficient for decision making. For example, assuming the
achievement test has covered the material in an instructional unit adequately, we
can decide whether or not to move ahead to the next essentially on the basis of the
test scores alone. Similarly, a well-designed diagnostic test, again assuming it con-
tains a sufficient number of opportunities for test takers to demonstrate knowledge
of or problems with a range of lexical or grammatical aspects of the language, may
be all that is needed to decide whether additional work is needed in certain areas
– though even in instances such as these, our decisions in individual cases may be
informed by such information as that a student had been feeling poorly on the day
of the test, or that another had just received bad news from home. With regard to
high-stakes decisions such as whether to admit applicants to a programme of study,
proficiency in the language of instruction will not, and should not, be adequate to
decide who can come and who should be left behind – if it were, then all native
speakers of the language should succeed! Surely in making such decisions, we need
to take into account all available information, including past student performance,
recommendations from former teachers, level of motivation, work experience, and
so on. The same is true when testing students to evaluate indirectly the performance
of teachers or programmes – other information, extenuating circumstances, may
override or mitigate the information provided by the test. In the case of policy deci-
sions being informed by test results, care needs to be taken that the standards are
applied equally across the populations in question, or if they are not, information
made available with regard to why.
The important point is that language tests give us a basis for making inferences
about language ability. Decisions that we subsequently make about peoples’ lives
may be informed to a greater or lesser degree by the test performance, but fun-
damentally the principle is that language test results are always suspect and that
all information available should be drawn upon when making language-related


I made the point in the first section that language is never used in a vacuum, that
we don’t simply speak, write, read, or listen. We always do so for a purpose, related
to the context, the situation we are in. We use language differently and for different
purposes in the workplace than at home, at a restaurant than at school, with close
friends than with strangers, and so on. We acquired our first language naturally in