Academic journal article Perspectives in Education

Accountability Issues in Testing Academic Literacy: The Case of the Test of Academic Literacy for Postgraduate Students (TALPS)

Academic journal article Perspectives in Education

Accountability Issues in Testing Academic Literacy: The Case of the Test of Academic Literacy for Postgraduate Students (TALPS)

Article excerpt

1. Responsible applied linguistics

Unfair tests, unfair testing methods and the use of tests to restrict and deny access have ensured a negative attitude to tests. In light of this, it is essential that, as applied linguists, we ensure that we design and use tests that are fair and socially acceptable. Weideman (2009) proposes a responsible agenda for applied linguistics, arguing that applied linguistic work should be backed by some foundational framework to ensure that the notions of responsibility and integrity can be articulated in a theoretically coherent and systematic way. The framework he refers to is based on a 'representation of the relationship among a select number of fundamental concepts in language testing' (Weideman, 2009: 241). This theoretical foundation or framework can be understood more easily when viewed in the form of a table:

The table and the theoretical framework it articulates seem to suggest that, if conditions such as consistency, validity, theoretical and social defensibility, transparency, accountability and fairness are anticipated in the design of a test, then that test will fulfil the requirements of being a (psychometrically and socially) good test. This framework highlights a number of important concepts in testing.

What, then, is the role of applied linguists working within this framework? How do we apply these concepts in our designs? Should we be active participants or passive observers, hiding behind the 'scientific' (Weideman, 2006: 80) justifications for our designs? Or are we, like members of other professions, responsible for the designs we create? If we are responsible for our work and to the people affected by it, how do we ensure that we undertake this responsibility with integrity, ethicality and professionalism? These are some of the questions this article will attempt to answer. In order to do this, the focus will be on the aspect of the accountability of the test developer. However, one of the main aims of the test developers of the Test of Academic Literacy for Postgraduate Students (TALPS) was to design, develop and administer a socially responsible test. For a detailed discussion of how other concepts in the framework have been applied to TALPS to satisfy the requirements of responsible and ethical test design and development see Rambiritch (2012; 2013; 2014a & 2014b).

2. Defining accountability

Explained simply, accountability has to do with taking responsibility for your actions. Accountability, however, does not stop there but requires, in addition to accounting for one's actions, that one be willing to face the consequences of these actions. According to Sinclair (1995: 220), accountability entails a relationship in which people are required to explain and take responsibility for their actions. Bovens (2005: 7) argues that accountability should be defined as a relationship between an actor and a forum, in which the actor has an obligation to explain and to justify his or her conduct to the forum, which then becomes a platform that can pose questions and pass judgment, and even sanction the actor.

The next section turns to the discussion of the following question: How does the concept of accountability, as defined above, relate to the field of testing?

2.1 Understanding accountability

In the field of (language) testing, emphasis seems to have revolved around two aspects of accountability: the need to 'professionalise' the field and the need for codes (ethics and practice). However, while codes (of ethics and practice) have been put in place to help regulate the profession and those associated with it, codes are not enough. They might help satisfy the need for accountability to the profession, but make no real contribution to public accountability. Because such testing is so closely linked to social issues, it is imperative that test developers also become publicly accountable for their designs. Often, however, language testers work in isolation. …

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