Language Testing: A Question of Context
Arguably the greatest challenge facing language testing is the issue of the context in which language testing is carried out, both at the micro and the macro level. In standard works on language testing, context has been theorized in terms of the demands it makes on individual cognitive attributes, but this has distorted the picture of the social context available to us. The social context theorized in its own terms has featured rather weakly in discussions of language tests. At the micro level, insights from Conversation Analysis have challenged the individualistic focus of current thinking about assessment. At the macro level, the awareness of social context has led to the development of critical language testing and an understanding that language testing constructs, implicitly or explicitly, may be sociolinguistic in origin, in the context of the use of language tests as markers of identity in settings marked by intergroup conflict. The paper argues that all language tests can be seen as tests of identity in the light of the theory of subjectivity proposed by Foucault, using as an example the Occupational English Test, a test of English as a second language for immigrant health professionals. The paper concludes with an argument for a deeper engagement with contemporary social theory in language testing research.
Tim McNamara is Professor of Applied Linguistics at The University of Melbourne in Australia. His research interests include language testing and language and identity. He is the author of Language Testing (OUP, 2000) and (with Carsten Roever) Language Testing: The Social Dimension (Blackwell, 2006).