In the EAP program I oversee the curriculum and assessments for, we’re lucky enough not to have to have standardized exit testing. This means we’re free to develop assessments in the format of our choosing, as opposed to having to teach IELTS or TOEFL test prep. So, therefore, that process includes identifying the key linguistic and academic skills which we deem necessary for our students’ future academic success, incorporating those into our EAP curriculum, and then developing ways to assess these skills.
One decision we’ve consciously made is not to have multiple choice questions on reading or listening assessments past the B1 level; question are open-ended. There is ample literature on the pros and cons of multiple choice questions (MCQ) to test receptive skills, and while MCQs can have their merits, we’ve decided to use open-ended questions as we always have our eye on where students are headed–the university, where their expression of the knowledge acquired through reading or listening will rarely be in multiple-choice form. (While there are many contexts within a typical Canadian university where multiple choice exams are prevalent, they seem to be limited to certain types of lower-level undergraduate courses.) We also expect these open-ended answers to be in complete sentences (though responses on reading or listening assessments are not marked for grammar, spelling, or punctuation).
What’s interesting about this policy is the blowback it creates. Some students, especially from certain countries, have never, ever, had their English assessed in any way other than multiple-choice questions (nor have they ever covered content in an English class that wasn’t standardized test preparation in some way; this affects alternative assessment in the productive skills areas as well. It’s funny how in some students’ minds, English and the whole standardized-testing world–the global IELTS-industrial complex–seem to blur together.) After the first midterm reading and listening tests there is invariably a line-up of students at my door wanting to complain about the format (and, more often than not, how difficult they found it).
More surprisingly, for me at least, is blowback that will occasionally arise from instructors. Sometimes it seems like they themselves are having a hard time shirking the weight of years of teaching in the long shadow of the IELTS-prep world, where answers are wrong or right, with no judgement required. Other times it seems like they understand intellectually why we value open-ended questions over multiple choice, but underestimate the amount of class time necessary to explain, contextualize, and practice this so that all students can adapt to this new-to-them paradigm, and then balk at the student blowback.
This is just one of the ways that the IELTS-industrial complex and student expectations can pose challenges to curriculum design and assessment in EAP.