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Review of  Assessing English on the Global Stage


Reviewer: Joshua M Paiz
Book Title: Assessing English on the Global Stage
Book Author: Cyril J. Weir Barry O'Sullivan
Publisher: Equinox Publishing Ltd
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
History of Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 29.1665

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Review:
REVIEWS EDITOR: Helen Aristar-Dry


SUMMARY

‘Assessing English on the Global Stage,’ by Cyril J. Weir and Barry O’Sullivan, offers a comprehensive overview of the rise and evolution of the British Council (BC), focusing on its working creating, and consulting on, major summative English language assessments. Considering the span of time, the authors are examining, 75 years, this is a massive undertaking that has been built on both access to an extensive archive of documents and on interviews with still living individuals that have played important roles in the growth and evolution of the BC’s testing arm. The result is a 337-page tome that offers an exceptional level of detail. To help guide the reader through this lengthy narrative (Weir & O’Sullivan, 2017, p. 40), they have broken the book into three sections: the BC’s agenda of spreading British influence around the world through facilitating English language learning; the development of academic English tests; and the development of language tests for ‘other’ purposes. This review will echo the organization of the original text.

In section one, Weir and O’Sullivan (2017) discuss the rise of the British Council, linking it to the British government’s desire to acquire so-called soft power, the new political and diplomatic currency of the mid-twentieth century. At first, the acquisition of soft-power took the form of cultural exchanges, such as travelling museum exhibits, but eventually a more linguistic focus took over. The focus on language led to the ascendency of the testing and assessment arm of the British Council and to the formation of essential partnerships between the BC and major research universities in the UK. These partnerships began forming in the 1960s, around the time of the corporate turn in higher education (Nealon, 2012). Moreover, these partnerships could be read as the BC playing a central role in the corporatization of British higher education. This was achieved by establishing new graduate programs in applied linguistics with the express purpose of creating a class of academics with the theoretical knowledge to help construct valid and reliable tests (p. 20). Many of these academics would go on to do work for the BC in roles that would help the organization contribute to the coffers of both itself and of its partner universities (pp. 42-44). Section one closes out by discussing how the BC worked to train local specialists that could then help them to construct tests that would be relevant to the needs of local populations, helping them to capture more market share. It should be noted that there was a tacit, if not overt, division of labor: BC consultants would write the test items, determine their validity and reliability, while the local specialists would speak to whether or not the constructed test was appropriate to local needs and linguistically, culturally, and rhetorically accessible to local populations.

In Section Two, the conversation shifts to the role of BC assessments as gatekeeping tools. That is, it focuses largely BC-led development and management of assessments that would determine which foreign students were adequately prepared to study, at least linguistically, at British universities. Weir and O’Sullivan (2017) begin by discussing how a shift in wartime priorities for the British Home Office eventually led to a shift in the BC’s focus, from being a cultural exporter to Europe, to be a language education and assessment exporter to more distant parts of the globe (p. 107-110). They identified the driving force behind this shift as the desire to, “seize the great opportunities available in Asia and Africa (p. 109)”. Section two continues by examining the creation of the first assessment geared at providing a measure of communicative ability. In the 1980’s the English Language Testing System (ELTS) was developed in response to the spreading acceptance of the communicative approach in English language teaching (p. 139). The development of ELTS was spearheaded by researchers who developed communication profiles to inform test design. They then created a test that could be tailored to the needs of the individual test taker—whether it be career development, entrance into an English-medium university, etc. However, the numbers of candidates that signed up for the new exam remained low through the 1980s (p.172). This led to a large-scale evaluation that highlighted issues with the practicality and validity of the ELTS exam. Based on the poor numbers, the BC began to question the exam’s ability to serve as a predictor of communicative ability and likely academic success at British universities. This led to the eventual development of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). The authors spend the last chapter outlining the development of the IELTS exam and that key role the strategic partners, e.g., Australia’s International Development Program (IDP) and Cambridge University, played in developing the test and helping it to gain global relevance.

The final section focuses on current shifts in BC assessment activities and a view of possible futures for the BC and their assessments. Weir & O’Sullivan (2017) begin by examining a considerable paradigm shift for the BC that occurred in the early years of the twenty-first century. Specifically, they identify how economic considerations made it prudent to switch from being a service provider to being a product developer and consultant. That is, the BC saw the need to shift away from managing the whole assessment process to merely helping develop assessment tools for a variety of contexts and purposes, allowing local organizations to take care of the actual service component—a kin to a franchise model. This section then discusses the approach used by the BC to develop localized assessments (i.e., the International Language Assessment (p. 258) and the Aptis System (p. 278). In this section the authors also provide ample examples of test questions and case studies to show how global clients have responded to the new assessment systems. In the future, Weir and O’Sullivan (2017) predict that the BC will continue in its role as a developer of English language assessments globally.


EVALUATION

If the only thing that you’re looking for is a straightforward, yet excruciatingly detailed, history of British Council (BC) run testing initiatives, look no further than Weir and O’Sullivan’s (2017) ‘Assessing English on the Global Stage’. It offers an in-depth look at the history of the Council’s efforts, even discussing, and apparently denouncing, the use of “council propaganda” (Weir & O’Sullivan, 2017, pp. 29-32). Now, there are two interesting things to note here, one of which I will discuss more fully later in this review. First, this section is one of the few moments of apparent criticism towards the target of inquiry—the BC and its global standardized assessment activities. The second thing, is that their efforts to build a history of BC activities is almost completely without a critical bent, or even an acknowledgment that they will be uncritically approaching their topic. One might argue that a history is just a record of fact. However, every history is necessarily fraught—subject to the interpretive and narrative needs of the teller. This, to me, creates a significant issue with the work presented here. Failing to consider how BC assessment activities perpetuate the dominance of center varieties of English, this book presents as relatively apolitical and ideologically neutral that which is far from being so.

This is particularly striking considering the number of opportunities that the authors have to critically engage with their topic in just the first chapter. For example, in the opening pages of chapter, they link the birth of the BC to Britain’s desire for increased soft power—using cultural outputs to create influence over other nations (Weir & O’Sullivan, 2017, pp. 4-5, see also Taylor, 1981). Yet, this is presented as mere historical fact. The authors fail to adequately reflect on this exigency that may illuminate the more problematic sides of the BC’s agenda. They also point out that the BC had a vested interest in maintaining and advancing certain standards of usage (p. 8) and that this could help to maintain a hegemonic state for (British) English (p. 11). However, besides a single reference to critical applied linguistics through Alistair Pennycook (1994), they don’t dig any deeper. They regularly pass up opportunities to engage with economic, ideological, and political forces that could help to contextualize (and problematize) BC decisions.

If you want a history of testing and assessment that will do more than provide an uncritical data dump that largely serves to extend “[BC] propaganda” (ibid), there are plenty of other histories out there (e.g., Lowenberg, 1993; Spolsky, 1993; Taylor, 2006). These more critical histories will not only provide a sufficient overview, but they will fuel your thoughts about how testing and assessment serves to extend the Anglosphere’s dominance over English language teaching and credentialing as well as who is or is not recognized as legitimate speakers of English. For example, Lowenberg (1993) discusses validity issues in global English language testing, highlighting the need for standardized test makers to be aware of the difference between linguistic deficiency on the one hand and linguistic variation and locally relevant usage on the other. Making this move would validate the legitimacy of expanding and outer circle Englishes. (Kachru & Nelson, 2006). Spolsky (1993) offers an accessible and critical view of the history of English language testing and assessment globally. He points specifically to growing competition between British and American testing paradigms as they vied not only for prestige and dominance but for revenue streams. By being critically aware, his work opens the door to a concentrated critique of language testing and assessment as an extension of (neo) colonial discourses of power and exclusion. For a more recent treatment one can turn to Taylor (2006), who extended Spolsky’s critical analysis by including the perspectives of language learners, giving weight to their concerns about the impact and usefulness of assessment tools created by Western agents. She ended by optimistically noting that as new varieties of English (e.g., Indian English, Singaporean English, etc.) rise in regional prominence, we may see a seismic shift in global testing and assessment. The question may no longer be which organization’s tests meet your needs (ETS vs. BC)? Rather, it will become which variety of English meets your needs? So, again, if you’re looking for a considerable tome that provides a straightforward history of BC testing and assessment, Weir and O’Sullivan (2017) is a good candidate. If, however, you prefer to not only acknowledge how problematic language testing and assessment is, but to engage with it head on, there are better options available, as referenced above.


REFERENCES

Kachru, Yamuna & Nelson, Cecil L. 2006. World Englishes in Asian contexts. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Lowenberg, Peter H. 1993. Issues of validity in tests of English as a world language: Whose standards?. World Englishes 12(1). 95-106. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-971x.1993.tb00011x

Nelon, Jeffery T. 2012. Post-moderism: Or, the cultural politics of just-in-time capitalism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Pennycook, Alistair. 1994. The cultural politics of English as a foreign language. Harlow, UK: Longman.

Spolsky, Bernard. 1993. Testing across cultures: An historical perspective. World Englishes 12(1). 87-93. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-971x.1993.tb00010.x

Taylor, Lynda. 2006. The changing landscape of English: Implications for language assessment. ELT Journal 60(1). DOI: 10.1093/elt/ccio81

Taylor, Philip M. 1981. The projection of Britain: British overseas publicity and propaganda 1919-1939. London: Cambridge.

Weir, Cyril J., & O’Sullivan, Barry. 2017. Assessing English on the global stage: The British Council and English language testing, 1941-2016. Sheffield, UK: Equinox.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Joshua M. Paiz holds a doctorate in second language studies (TESOL) from Purdue University. He is currently a lecturer in the writing program at New York University, where he serves as an L2 writing specialist. His research interests include LGBTQ+ issues in applied linguistics, Online Writing Labs as L2 writing support tools, and sociocognitive approaches to SLA. His work has appeared in outlets such as TESOL Journal, TESL-EJ, Asian EFL Journal, and the Journal of Language and Sexuality. He also serves as a member of the review boards of TESOL Journal, TESL-EJ, and the Asian EFL Journal.

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