Washback effects of the Cambridge Preliminary English Test at an Argentinean bilingual school
Latimer, David G.
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Internationally, commercial standardized English tests have greater influence than ever before on EFL programs as measures of student learning, school accountability, and proficiency. One of the most prominent is the University of Cambridge ESOL exams series. Businesses, universities and schools around the world evaluate students´ language competences based on this exam. Numerous studies have considered exam impact, or washback, upon curricula and teachers’ general approaches to managing exams. More extensive and detailed study is required to understand the impact such exams have on daily classroom practices and interactions between teachers and students. This study documents the overall English language program at one Argentinean bilingual school and examines, in particular, the effects the Cambridge ESOL exams upon its curricula, its teachers and upon language learning. This ethnographic research represents broad-based observations, conducted over three years, and a focused five-month investigation of the Cambridge Exams’ impact on teaching and learning at this bilingual school. The analysis reveals both positive and negative washback effects. Preparation for Cambridge Exams serves to hone students’ grammatical awareness and their abilities to negotiate test specific tasks such as “reading for specific information” or “writing an extended answer, showing control and range of language.” The exams also provide a structure that organizes the curriculum and motivates both teachers and students. However, Preliminary English Test preparatory texts used at the school work to restrict classroom interaction and limit extended output from students. The exam stifles conversation, debate, oral and written argument, and analytical skills. According to second language acquisition research, these activities produce both stronger language learners and better equipped citizens. A highly effective and broad based K-6 bilingual curriculum produces 6th and 7th grade students with remarkable communicative abilities, comfort in the L2 and eagerness to use the language for academic and social purposes. Beginning in grade 7, when Cambridge test preparation becomes the program goal and curriculum, through grade 12, most students fail to progress in the sorts of communicative and analytical language abilities they will need in future higher education and professional settings. In short, the Exam works against the language development the institution aspires to foster.