With you, without you...

Photo: John Ayers, author of the blog

Written by John Ayers, British School Pisa

Tests! You know when you are at the dentist and inside your head the drill starts to bite into your brain and you know that this is going to hurt even if they said it wouldn't, for a lot of people the word 'test' has a similar effect. But not for everyone; I'm one of those people who gets excited at the mention of tests. I mean I've always been good at them, I'm always in there with a chance of winning, the adrenaline starts pumping. But then I guess that this is because I'm a part of that meagre 20% of the student population which gets on well with 'education'.

If 20% of school kids find themselves at ease with our educational system then this would mean that 80% don't. Tests! Much of the unease is there.

Tests! Last night I watched an episode from the Netflix series 'The Crown'. (I spent years snubbing it but now I'm hooked).  “Fagan”. Michael Fagan was the guy who broke into Buckingham Palace, woke the Queen up and sat talking to her for 20 minutes until the police arrived. We don't know what was said, but for sure Fagan was one of the 80% and no good at tests. Failed, failed, failed, was his message. But is it so terrible not to be able to pass the tests? Is it a crime to fail? That's what he was asking. For Mrs. Thatcher, yes, but for the Queen it was not so clearcut. Or, at least, this is what the fiction tells us.

Placement tests in language teaching are a part of the world of 'testing'. Like most tests they are so often designed to find out what you don't know, to be 'without you' rather than 'with you'. Fortunately, however, digital technology is ushering in a new world in the field of education. Algorithms in testing are one example. Algorithms help a test to find out what you know, they don't need to know what you don't know. The “Next Generation Placement Tests” created by an Erasmus + team (Jantar, British School Pisa, Molehill and Amber IT Solutions) are part of this digital revolution, using a sophisticated algorithmic system that has not been used up to now for this type of test. You can find your language level in English, Italian, Spanish, German, French and Russian and the test will give you an accurate picture of where you are on the European CEFR scale in any of these six European languages. The tests are free everywhere in the world for the next three years, they are easy to use and most of all they are 'with you'. The algorithms start at the bottom and work you gently forward, working with you and not without you, working with what you know and not with what you don't know.

I sometimes wonder why dentists don't understand just how terrible that noise is, drilling into your skull. Why not invent a silent drill? In the same way teachers don't really seem to understand about tests. Let's hope that the algorithms will help.