level tests

I’m preparing a theme-based English camp. Using the feedback from the students, teachers and staff of last year’s camp, I am tweaking, changing and hopefully improving the syllabus for the new one.

What I’ve got is one week, repeated three times. There’s lots of room for reflection and adjustment as we go along. There are no returning students, so I can recycle some of the topics.

I have three main themes: sending a letter at the post office; international travel at an airport; and working and serving in an international restaurant. Each theme lasts a day; I learned last year that it’s a mistake to plan anything inflexible for Monday and Friday. Friday is only half a day, and we use it for wrap-up activities like a Golden Bell team trivia game and making and signing memory books for each other.

Monday feels like a waste of time. The students come and get settled in their rooms. There is an opening ceremony and they take a tour of the campus. (The campus tour is going to be really important this year as I implement Ratna’s Amazing Race activity later in the week.) Then they have lunch and come back to the auditorium for “Level Tests”.

"Before the test" Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @Senicko, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/

“Before the test” Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @Senicko, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/

This is what level tests looked like last year:
Students sit in our auditorium and we give them a reading comprehension test. The test has three parts: a really easy part that asks factual questions about the reading (along the lines of “What color is the ball?” a. red b. blue c. black), a mid-level part that has a slightly more complex passage and long-answer comprehension questions (mostly factual), and a higher-level part that has part of a news article and comprehension questions that inference and expressing an opinion. This test takes about 20 minutes for the students to either complete it or give up.

"Listening" Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @sandymillin, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/

“Listening” Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @sandymillin, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/

It has two huge problems, though: the students cheat off each other because they feel it’s a high-risk situation and I am not an expert test-maker and honestly have no idea how to tell if this test is assessing what I hope it is assessing (i.e. reading comprehension, not test-taking skills).

The second part of the level test, going on at the same time, is an interview with one of the teachers. One by one, 90 students go to the back of the auditorium where teachers are waiting with lists of questions progressing from basic, formulaic questions to questions that involve long sentences, more complicated grammar and more of the students’ own opinions. Each 11-year-old kid gets about three minutes to demonstrate their verbal abilities (or clam up and cry).

"Emotions" Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @dfogarty, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/

“Emotions” Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @dfogarty, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/

There are a few problems with this system. First of all, we misfire more than I would expect to. We don’t have the time to have two teachers interviewing each kid and discussing their level afterwords, so it’s nearly impossible to make sure everyone’s idea of “high” “medium” or “beginner” are the same. I give them criteria, but I can’t directly supervise. Second of all, it’s bloody boring tedious. Thirdly, it is stressful for the students.

I’m not even convinced that it’s all that necessary. On the one hand, it’s pretty difficult to teach a class with both beginners and advanced students, but on the other hand it’s just four days and they’re mixed some of that time anyway, and the two hours of stressful level-testing can probably be better used.

So I have some questions for the blogging world:

1. Do you do level tests? Why or why not?
2. If you do level tests, how do you do them?
3. Would you be willing to share ideas with me – what can I do differently?


(P.S.: Giant thanks to #ELTpics. I’m a first time user, but I’ll be back!)

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  • kevchanwow  On April 23, 2013 at 8:09 pm

    Hi Anne,

    I’m going to jump right in and say scratch the level test. Over the past three years, I’ve found that for many classes, levels are much less important than students sense of safety and comfort. Things like being with friends, getting along with the person you are paired up with or are in your small group, gender division, etc., if taken into account, can lead to a more productive group/class than a level check. Why not use those test hours to do some team building groups, make notes on who seems to work well with whom and then break up classes based on those observations.

    Task based games/activities that don’t take much English, but a whole lot of cooperation can be good. Things like having students line up by height or birthday and watching who talks to who and how might be a good way to assess group dynamics. Even something like getting a huge piece of cloth and a bunch of markers and glitter and getting everyone to make a summer camp flag for an hour and watching how it goes down could create a sense of camaraderie while also letting you check what’s going on within the whole group.

    So, at the risk of sounding super prescriptive, ditch the test, let the kids interact, get all the teachers to take notes on who is interacting with who and how and break up the groups so that as many kids as possible feel comfortable working with each other as they have a blast at summer camp.


    • livinglearning  On April 24, 2013 at 10:54 am

      Hey Kev,
      Thanks for your input. I completely agree that levels are less important than students sense of safety – especially in so short a program.
      I think I need to collect ideas on what to do instead and talk to the director and see what he thinks will satisfy the students and their parents’ expectations. Thanks for giving me a good head start on alternatives!

  • Jo Cummins (Creativities)  On April 23, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    I agree with Kevin! I think the level test sound like a waste of time and a bit stressful considering it is such a short course. I like Kevin’s suggestions of games and activities, and also if you are speaking to them in English and encouraging English it should be fairly obvious if there are any students that are really advanced and any that are real beginners and you could try and group them together and then the others will probably not be that dissimilar in level so can just be grouped according to if they have friends there or who they gravitate towards.

    • livinglearning  On April 24, 2013 at 11:06 am

      Hi Jo,
      Thanks for taking the time to read. I appreciate your point and it reminded me that actually, once we’ve tested them in the past, choosing the middle classes is STILL a headache because they ARE so similar. I will keep it in mind. Thanks for your comment!

  • gemmalunn  On April 24, 2013 at 10:07 am

    I agree with Jo and Kevin! I wouldn’t have 2 years ago but after 2 years of teaching (extremely) mixed ability groups I’m of the opinion that it can be beneficial for everyone, especially for young learners and teens. I think it just takes a bit of extra thinking and planning from the teacher to ensure everyone benefits and feels like they are learning. Mixed groups / pairs for activities helps as well as having ‘mini-teachers’ to help lower level students. The level test sounds like a stressful way to start a week that’s supposed to be fun! (and educational obviously!)

    • gemmalunn  On April 24, 2013 at 10:09 am

      p.s. I’m sorry if this is not much help as I haven’t given any advice re level tests!

    • livinglearning  On April 24, 2013 at 11:10 am

      Hi Gemma,
      Thanks for reading! It is nice to hear that it is possible and even productive to teach classes of mixed ability. I’ve for so long believed that it was no good for the students or the teachers, and that practices of getting the higher to help the lower were just “making the best of a bad situation”. I’ve never done it myself and it’s really refreshing to hear another perspective on the matter. Thanks!

  • Christopher Miller (@Christo63789662)  On April 24, 2013 at 12:37 pm

    Good post, isn’t there anyway to reference this information before students come? Seems very inefficient, when you only have a week.

    • livinglearning  On April 24, 2013 at 4:51 pm

      Thanks for reading, Chris.
      I wish there was a way to get information about the students before they arrive, and for other camps we are trying to implement this. Unfortunately it is not possible for this one and the staff agree that it is, as you say, really inefficient. There are much better things we can do with the time. Just another challenge of teaching camps, I guess. In an IDEAL world, well, …
      Thanks for the comment!

  • Tom Randolph (@TomTesol)  On April 26, 2013 at 9:06 pm

    I’m a big fan of well-designed level tests, which in my experience has always meant simplicity and brevity, but for a four-day camp where the primary objective seems to be getting the spoken-interaction engines revving, I think I agree that it’s not worth the time. maybe more important to make sure the kids are with other kids they want to be with?

    • livinglearning  On April 28, 2013 at 10:45 am

      Hi Tom,
      Thanks for reading. I’m curious what a well-designed level test of elementary school kids would look like to you? I really am trying to explore alternative methods and have other camps coming in which some kind of level tests will be necessary. For a four day camp, I’m inclined to agree with you and the previous comments, but I’m still looking for alternative ways of level testing in future (longer) camps. I’d appreciate your ideas. Thanks for the comment.

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