NEAT to have positive impact on English learning
By Lyle F. Bachman
I must congratulate the Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation (KICE) on its foresight and innovativeness in producing the National English Ability Test (NEAT), which in my view represents a major step forward in the field of English language testing in Korea and in the world.
What makes NEAT particularly important, I believe, is the inclusion of tests of speaking and writing, as well as tests of reading and listening.
Including speaking and writing is critical, in my view, given the likely impact of the NEAT on English language teaching in Korea. Any large-scale test that is used for making high-stakes decisions will inevitably have an impact, or washback, on the way English is taught in schools.
The kind of washback, positive or negative, that occurs will depend, to a large extent, on the nature of the test itself.
Positive washback can occur when the test measures aspects of language ability that English educators and classroom teachers believe are important for their students’ success, and includes tasks that correspond to language use tasks that students will encounter in their English classrooms or later in life.
In other words, positive washback can occur when teachers, curriculum developers, textbook writers, and others involved in English education believe that the content of the test and the kinds of tasks that are included correspond to their own beliefs about what students need to learn.
Positive washback can also lead English educators, classroom teachers, curriculum developers, and textbook writers to change the way English is taught and tested in schools, with the result that students are both taught and tested on the full range of communicative language abilities that are valued and that they will need in their future lives and careers.
Given the kinds of tasks that are included in NEAT, the fact that it is based on the Korean national English curriculum, and covers all four skills ― listening, speaking, reading, and writing, NEAT is likely to provide positive washback on English teaching in Korea, which I would see as a very strong beneficial consequence.
It is to KICE’s credit that they have designed this intended beneficial consequence into the test from the very beginning of its development.
Negative washback can occur when the test does not include all the aspects of English language ability that English educators and classroom teachers value, and when the test tasks, or items, do not correspond to the kinds of tasks that students encounter in either their classes or in their future careers.
In other words, negative washback can occur when teachers, curriculum developers, textbook writers, and others involved in English education feel that they have to narrow the content of what they teach and limit what they teach to what is included in the test.
Negative washback has been seen over and over throughout the world with tests like the TOEFL and TOEIC, which, until they were recently revised, tested only reading, listening and perhaps grammar and vocabulary, and included only multiple-choice items.
Before these large-scale international tests were redesigned to include tests of speaking and writing, they had demonstrable negative washback on EFL instruction all over the world.
Indeed, it was pressure from English education communities and EFL professionals around the world that finally convinced the developer of these tests, Educational Testing Service, to include tests of speaking and writing.
As you well know, the other two major large-scale EFL tests in the world, the International English Language Testing Service (IELTS) and the Pearson Test of English (PTE) Academic, both include tests of speaking and writing. Thus all of the major international EFL tests in the world now include tests of all four skills.
In conclusion, because NEAT covers all four skills and includes a wide variety of tasks, I believe that this test will be able to provide the beneficial consequence of positive impact on English education in Korea, and will be seen, by the international English language testing community, as being of the same caliber as other major tests of EFL in the world.
In addition, given its innovative use of technology to administer and score test tasks and to report results, the NEAT is, in my view, far ahead of many other major EFL tests in the world.
Lyle F. Bachman is a professor emeritus of applied linguistics of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).