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Language Testing 7, 1 (1990); pp.

119-20
Book review
Baker, D. 1989: Language testing: a critical survey and
practical guide. London: Edward Arnold. iii + 1 14 pp. ISBN
0-71 31 -6538-3.
There are by now so many different interests in language testing that books
tend t o be written for particular audiences, and the one comprehensive text
of the traditional kind, intended to cover all requirements, is either too
superficial or too massive t o be viable. It is therefore worth establishing
which group of readers would find this book most useful for their
needs - specialists, students, teachers, learners, or combinations, e.g.,
teachers as students on initial or development courses. Baker considers that
there is currently some confusion about the means and ends of language
testing as a result of controversy between 'adherents t o different schools'. I
am not sure about the appropriateness of this mediaeval parallel (not how
many angels can dance on the head of a pin but how many dimensions can
dance under the heading of a construct?) because it seems to imply that the
language testing world is one nation divided among itself into mutually
antagonistic groups of theorists. I would prefer to see testing as an area in
which all contributions are welcome because they help to improve thinking
and, eventually, promote the student's interests. Baker's stated aim is 'to put
[the] issues into perspective and to give the user or writer of language tests the
necessary conceptual tools to make sound, informed decisions in this field'
(p. 2). The statement is usefully specific about intentions, but 'the user or
writer' could be almost anybody.
Summarizing the areas covered should help t o clarify who would find the
book most useful. The first chapter is concerned with what testing is
supposed t o achieve, rightly emphasizing its purpose as a means of helping
users t o reach good decisions and suggesting that by nature it is a substitute
for more complete procedures. Chapter 2 introduces four models of
language test types. Baker's rather negative view of theorists leads him to
start afresh with his own categorization, attempting a neutral and jargon-
free description of possibilities for language test types. These are set out
in a two-dimensional grid, with 'performance-referenced' and 'system-
referenced' plotted against 'direct' and 'indirect'. The third chapter begins
with a historical review of language testing from the second world war
onwards and develops into a discussion of the 'psychometric approach', with
an evaluation of its merits and disadvantages and comments on norm-and
criterion-referenced assessment. Chapter 4 deals with the use and interpreta-
tion of statistics, including distributions, ranking, item analysis, correlation
120 Book review
and factor analysis. Chapter 5 is headed 'The integrative interlude', and
includes an account of the rise and fall of the Unitary Competence
Hypothesis, the structure of language proficiency and the use of cloze and
dictation tests, and Chapter 6 considers 'performance-referenced' tests, both
'direct' and 'indirect' (he regards the label 'communicative' as 'probably the
least helpful' description), suggesting ways in which they can be most
appropriately used. Chapter 7 is concerned with the different contexts in
which tests are deployed, for example the various kinds of test required
within a programme of language instruction as against an external examina-
tion set by a national or international body. This chapter ends with seven key
questions which help to establish whether, in a given situation, a test is
necessary at all, and if so what introducing it will involve. There follow short
lists of references and further reading, and an index.
The tone of the book is certainly 'critical' in the best sense: it takes nothing
for granted, questioning the meanings of various approaches to testing and
taking a healthily sceptical view of the use of test statistics as sole evidence
about debatable points. Baker makes commendable efforts to avoid using
what he regards as jargon, but (not surprisingly in view of the need to label
concepts) tends to get wrapped up in some of his own, for example: 'The
model for this kind of test construction resembles that of the direct test
except that between the test and criterion performance are now interposed
the two intermediate constructs of criterion and test proficiency' (p. 91). In
any case, avoiding the common language of the field does not necessarily
making things clearer, as the discussion about norm-referenced and
criterion-referenced testing shows (pp. 39-40). This may seem a rather trivial
level of comment, but it reflects a certain inconsistency in approach. The
book seems t o be attempting on occasion a somewhat academic tone, but in
that case deals rather too briefly with complex issues such as difficulty levels
and the implications of multiple-choice formats and is too unspecific about
sources ('recent research has shown . . .'). On the other hand, if it is aimed at
people who are relatively new to testing, such as teachers in training, it
includes diversions such as the historical account of testing developments
since the 1940s, at the expense perhaps of more guidance on test content and
test writing. There are lots of good things in the book, deriving mainly from
Baker's logical approach to what is involved in testing in general. But there
are also many points on which I would disagree with the conclusions
reached, for example that there are occasions when 'we can see how difficult
a test is by just looking at it' (p. 89) and the notion that it is legitimate to
calibrate a test of one skill against that of another (p. 95). There is also a
tendency t o oversimplify quite complex situations: 'All the test constructor
has to do is to sample from this proficiency and devise a test t o measure it.'
All, indeed!
On the whole, I find the book a better critical survey than practical guide.
It covers a great deal of ground in quite a small space and attempts a
refreshingly unbiased approach, but I am still uncertain which kind of reader
would gain most from it - perhaps after all it is the 'general' book in the
middle, for the non-specialist.
Andrew Harrison