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key concepts in elt

Washback and impact

Lynda Taylor,

It has long been believed that tests directly influence educational

processes in various ways. One common assumption is that teachers will
be influenced by the knowledge that their students are planning to take a
certain test and will adapt their teaching methodology and lesson content
to reflect the tests demands. The term backwash has been used to refer
to the way a test affects teaching materials and classroom management
(Hughes 1989), although within the applied linguistics and language
testing community the term washback is more widely used today (Weir
1990; Alderson and Wall 1993; Alderson 2004). Washback is generally
perceived as being either negative (harmful) or positive (beneficial).
Negative washback is said to occur when a tests content or format is
based on a narrow definition of language ability, and so constrains the
teaching/learning context. Davies et al. (1999: 225) offer the following
illustration: If, for example, the skill of writing is tested only by multiple
choice items then there is great pressure to practise such items rather
than to practise the skill of writing itself. Positive washback is said to
result when a testing procedure encourages good teaching practice; for
example, an oral proficiency test is introduced in the expectation that it
will promote the teaching of speaking skills.
The past ten years have seen a growing awareness that testing can have
consequences beyond just the classroom. Tests and test results have a
significant impact on the career or life chances of individual test takers
(e.g. access to educational/employment opportunities). They also impact
on educational systems, and on society more widely: for example, test
results are used to make decisions about school curriculum planning,
immigration policy, or professional registration for doctors; and the
growth of a test may lead publishers and institutions to produce test
preparation materials and run test preparation courses. The term
impact is generally used to describe these consequences of tests
(Bachman 1990; Bachman and Palmer 1996). Some language testers
consider washback as one dimension of impact, describing effects on the
educational context (Hamp-Lyons 1997); others see washback and
impact as separate concepts relating respectively to micro and macro
effects within society. Most testers locate both concepts within the
theoretical notion of consequential validity in which the social
consequences of testing are part of a broader, unified concept of test
validity (Messick 1989, 1996). Consequential validity (along with related
themes of fairness and ethics) has been extensively discussed among
language testers in recent years (Kunnan 2000). Most testers now
acknowledge that washback and impact are highly complex
phenomena; some take a stronger view derived from critical theory

154 ELT Journal Volume 59/2 April 2005 Q Oxford University Press
in which language testing is characterized as the exercise of power by one
party over another (Shohamy 2001).
Assertions about the nature, extent, and direction (positive/negative) of
impact in language testing have often been based on assumptions rather
than on empirical evidence. Alderson and Wall (1993) argued the need
for empirical investigation and were among the first to develop
appropriate research hypotheses. Since then, language testers have
developed various instruments for measuring washback and impact, and
evaluating the degree to which they may be considered positive or
negative (Saville and Hawkey 2004). Empirical findings from washback
and impact studies are now being reported at conferences and published
in the literature (see studies reported in Cheng, Watanabe, and Curtis
Interest in this important area for teachers, learners, and other
stakeholders will undoubtedly grow as testsespecially high stakes
testsare used more widely at regional, national, and international level,
and as the consequences of test useespecially the valid and ethical use
of test resultscome under greater scrutiny in the public domain.

References Language Testing Research Colloquium, Orlando,

Alderson, J. C. 2004. Foreword in L. Cheng, Florida. Studies in Language Testing, Vol. 9.
Y. Watanabe, and A. Curtis (eds.). Washback in Cambridge: UCLES/Cambridge University Press.
language testing: Research contexts and methods. Messick, S. 1989. Validity in R. L. Linn (ed.).
London: Lawrence Erlbaum. Educational Measurement. New York: Macmillan.
Alderson, J. C. and D. Wall. 1993. Does washback Messick, S. 1996. Validity and washback
exist? Applied Linguistics 14: 116 29. in language testing. Language Testing 13/4:
Alderson, J. C. and D. Wall . (eds.). 1996. Language 241 56.
TestingSpecial Issue on Washback, 13/3. Edward Saville, N. and R. Hawkey. 2004. The IELTS
Arnold. Impact Study: Investigating washback on teaching
Bachman, L. 1990. Fundamental Considerations in materials, in L. Cheng, Y. Watanabe, and A. Curtis
Language Testing. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (eds.).
Bachman, L. and A. Palmer. 1996. Language Testing Shohamy, E. 2001. The Power of Tests. London:
in Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Longman/Pearson.
Cheng, L., Y. Watanabe, and A. Curtis. (eds.). 2004. Weir, C. 1990. Understanding and Developing
Washback in language testing: Research contexts and Language Tests. London: Prentice Hall.
methods. London: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Davies, A., A. Brown, C. Elder, K. Hill, T. Lumley, The author
and T. McNamara. 1999. Dictionary of Language Lynda Taylor worked as an ELT teacher, teacher-
Testing, Studies in Language Testing, Vol. 7. trainer, and materials writer before specialising in
Cambridge: UCLES/Cambridge University Press. the field of English language testing. She holds a
Hamp-Lyons, L. 1997. Washback, impact and PhD in applied linguistics and language testing
validity: ethical concerns. Language Testing 14/3: from the University of Cambridge, and is currently
295303. Assistant Director of the Research and Validation
Hughes, A. 1989. Testing for Language. Teachers. Group at the Cambridge ESOL, which co-ordinates
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. the research and validation activity underpinning
Kunnan, A. J. (ed.). 2000. Fairness and validation in the Cambridge ESOL examinations.
language assessment: Selected papers from the 19th Email:

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