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Review of  Washback in Language Testing

Reviewer: Esmat Babaii
Book Title: Washback in Language Testing
Book Author: Liying Cheng Yoshinori Wantanabe Andy Curtis
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 16.3304

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Date: Mon, 14 Nov 2005 09:52:46 -0800
From: Esmat Babaii
Subject: Washback in Language Testing: Research Contexts and

EDITORS: Cheng, Liying; Watanabe, Yoshinori; Curtis, Andy
TITLE: Washback in Language Testing
SUBTITLE: Research Contexts and Methods
PUBLISHER: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
YEAR: 2004

Esmat Babaii, Department of Foreign Languages, University for
Teacher Education, Tehran, Iran

A decade after the scholarly serious appraisal of the notion of
washback pioneered by Alderson and Wall (1993), it is timely to have
a new publication which looks carefully at washback from both
theoretical and empirical perspectives. Washback in Language
Testing is a well-balanced and informative collection of various articles
representing different methodological frameworks and offering
different positions and research findings about washback in language

The book consists of two parts. Part One, which consists of three
chapters, introduces the concept of and theoretical arguments about
washback in language testing and presents the most commonly
methodological frameworks used to investigate this complex
phenomenon. Part Two includes Chapters Four to Eleven. It reports
the results of several empirical studies on washback.

In the 'foreword' to this volume, Charles Alderson, while providing a
useful brief background and explaining how he became involved in
investigating washback, questions what he calls a "Messickian view"
(p. xi, see also Messick, 1996) of engineering positive washback by
test design. He then calls for a multi-dimensional treatment of
washback phenomenon which considers washback not as a direct
effect of test in itself, but as a result of the interaction of numerous
factors existing in the educational system.

In Chapter One: 'Washback or backwash: A review of the impact of
testing on teaching and learning', Cheng and Curtis offer a collection
of different outlooks on washback and suggest that instead of being
very much concerned about the positive and/or negative direction of
washback, it is more plausible to consider the complexity and intensity
of the phenomenon and explore the intricate causes of it in a given
educational community. The success or failure of assessment-driven
reform, they add, is not necessarily guaranteed beforehand. Rather, it
will mostly depend on the inner dynamic of the system of education.

In Chapter Two: 'Methodology in washback studies', Watanabe
proposes a qualitative approach to investigating washback due to its
complex rather than monolithic nature. He suggests a
conceptualization of washback that centers round these dimensions:
specificity, intensity, length, intentionality, and value, with a particular
emphasis on analyzing the aspects of learning and teaching that are
often influenced by the test, on one hand, and the factors that mediate
the process of washback, including test facets, personal factors, and
micro-/macro-contextual factors, on the other hand. He then provides
detailed guidelines on how qualitative research on this area can be
conducted, from designing research to selecting the participants,
analyzing the data and interpreting the results. This chapter, it seems
to me, is one of the best contributions to this collection. The points
discussed in this chapter can lucidly serve as a set of criteria with
reference to which one may judge the validity of the empirical studies
on washback including those presented in the second part of the book.

Chapter Three: 'Washback and curriculum innovation' by Andrews,
examines the assertions made about the nature of relationship that
exists between curriculum innovation and washback. It offers a review
of the available relevant empirical pieces of evidence for and against
this link. Far from being a simple yes or no, he concludes, the
influence of high-stakes tests on curriculum should be investigated
through a careful examination of various niceties of the educational
community and the changes introduced are often found to differ in
type, depth, and complexity.

In Chapter Four: 'The effects of assessment-driven reform on the
teaching of writing in Washington State', Stecher, Chun, and Barron
report a study conducted to document the changes at both school and
classroom levels during the early years of Washington Educational
Reform which, among other things, introduced Washington
Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) as a new assessment
mechanism focusing on writing skill. Teachers and principals
participating in the survey report changes in the allocation of time,
emphasis on different aspects of learning, content and method of
teaching, and students' learning activities. Replacing multiple-choice
tests with more performance-based assessments appears to lead to
an increase in the amount of writing students do in schools. Reliance
on self-reports provided only by the teachers and principals, and not
the students, nevertheless, can put this research and its findings in a
rather vulnerable position.

Saville and Hawkey in Chapter Five, 'The IELTS impact study:
Investigating washback on teaching materials', mostly present a
research-in-progress report and focus on the data-collection
instrument development phase of a large-scale, multi-phase IELTS
impact study. They provide a detailed description of the instruments
and procedures employed including user survey and structured group
interviews with students, teachers and oral examiners, along with
ratings of test practice books and materials. Early evidence points, it
seems, to the authenticity of texts in test-related books as a beneficial
effect of IELTS. In another study on the washback effect of IELTS
reported in Chapter Six, 'IELTS test preparation in New Zealand',
Hayes and Read attempt to examine whether IELTS test preparation
courses in New Zealand show any evidence in support of washback
related to this high-stakes test. Classroom observations, teacher
interviews, teacher and student questionnaires, and pretests and
posttests of students were the data collection tools used to investigate
the nature of the two preparation courses. The obtained findings
indicate drastic differences in the classroom practices offered to
prepare students for IELTS implying that different instructors follow
different methodologies to deal with the intended test tasks and

In a study of washback effect in the Australian Adult Migrant English
Program reported in Chapter Seven, 'Washback in classroom-based
assessments', Burrows documents the consequences of introducing
the Certificate in Spoken and Written English (CSWE) backed up by
data collected through questionnaires, interviews and classroom
observations. The results of this study reveal that different teachers
are affected differently by the new competency-based assessment
system. In fact, Burrows categorizes the teachers' reaction to CSWE
into four types: resister, adopter, partial adopter, and adaptor. In an
interesting discussion, she criticizes the traditional view of washback
which considers it to be a single, uniform response to a given test.
Instead, she proposes a new model for washback "which takes into
account teachers' belief systems and consequent responses to
change" (p.125). A fruitful analysis, however, may address these
observed variations in terms of their patterns of behavior rather than
bewildering individual and idiosyncratic responses. It appears to me
that the introduction of this model, which proposes seeking a pattern
rather than being lost in the diversities, singles out this contribution as
a turning point in the study of washback.

Results of the research into the washback effect of the English
component of Japanese University Entrance Examination are
presented in Chapter Eight, 'Teacher factors mediating washback'. In
this study, Watanabe has collected the data through classroom
observations and interviews with teachers. He concludes that the
negative picture of the effect of the Entrance Examination as depicted
by Japanese mass media does not truly reflect what is happening in
the classrooms. The test, he adds, has both positive and negative
washback effects. He also holds that the effect of the test is mediated
by teachers' psychological factors and school cultures. Instead of a
top-down approach to curriculum innovation, he calls for efforts
directed towards some types of teacher training in order to introduce
changes at the level of individual teachers. The author attracts our
attention to many interesting points. However, as also pointed out by
Watanabe himself "teachers were informed of the purpose of
research" (p.133) and this can weaken the validity of his findings.

In another study by Cheng reported in Chapter Nine, 'The washback
effect of a public examination change on teachers' perceptions toward
their classroom teaching', the washback effect of the new (1996)
Hong Kong Certificate Examination in English (HKCEE) is investigated.
HKCEE is designed to encourage more task-based teaching practices
in Hong Kong. Analysis of teacher questionnaires and classroom
observations reveal that teachers are reluctant to make fundamental
changes in their daily practices, although their reactions to the test are
positive. Based on these findings, Cheng concludes that changes in
the educational system appear to be superficial rather than substantial
and that a change in the examination alone is unlikely to fulfill the
intended purposes of test designers and policy makers. These
findings are further supported by Qi's study reported in Chapter
Ten, 'Has a high-stakes test produced the intended changes?' It
examines the intended washback effect of the National Matriculation
English Test (NMET), a substitute for the old university entrance
English examination in China. Through in-depth interviews and follow-
up contacts with the test constructors and teachers, Qi finds out that
the test mainly influences the content of teaching but not teaching
methodology employed by teachers. In fact, there appears to exist
only a partial match between the test constructors' intention to
promote communicative use of language and the reported actual
classroom practices; hence, leading the author to the conclusion that
a high-stakes test may not be a good lever for change.

In Chapter Eleven, 'The washback effect of an EFL national
matriculation test to teaching and learning', Ferman investigates the
effect of a high-stakes test introduced as a means of curriculum
innovation in the Israeli educational system. Drawing on the extensive
data collected through multiple sources (structured questionnaires,
structured interviews, open interviews, and document analysis) and
multiple participants (teachers, EFL inspectors, as well as students),
she finds out that there is a strong washback effect on the educational
processes, products, and participants in Israeli high schools. The
effects, however, are characterized as both positive (promotion of
language skills, especially oral skills and different teaching/learning
strategies) and negative (a higher level of anxiety and increased
pressure to cover the materials). To me, Ferman's study is an
impeccable research as it admirably meets the 'triangulation' criterion
which guarantees the credibility of research (cf. Davies, 1995).

Despite the fact that some of the studies reported in this collection
suffer from certain methodological defects, I think, the collection is an
important contribution to our understanding of the concept of
washback in language testing. The reader gathers useful knowledge
about washback and, at the same time, understands the ways
contextual differences in different educational systems can affect the
nature of washback in reality. The research reports edited in the
volume, in my opinion, should be read critically as there are a number
of shortcomings in the design and data collection procedure of a few
studies that may limit the generalizability of their findings.


Alderson, Charles & Wall, Diane (1993) Does washback exist? Applied
Linguistics 14, 115-129.

Davies, Katharine (1995) Qualitative theory and methods in applied
linguistics research. TESOL Quarterly 29, 427-453.

Messick, Samuel (1996) Validity and washback in language testing.
Language Testing 13, 241-256.


Esmat Babaii is an assistant professor in the Department of Foreign
Languages at the University for Teacher Education, Tehran, Iran. She
has taught graduate courses including language testing and research
methods for several years. Her research interests include language
testing, discourse analysis, EAP, and L2 research. She is currently the
editor of the Asian EFL Journal and also a member of System review

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