Mike Heath: 21.06.17
Developing and running a reliable, accurate, fair and ‘valid’ placement test is a challenging endeavour. Developing an online placement test with the same characteristics is even more so. As teachers and institutions the goal is to place our new learners into the best classes to optimise their learning pace and outcomes, we all know the frustration when a student is placed in the wrong classes, the impact that has on the student’s confidence in the school, and the difficulties caused to our carefully laid teaching plans.
The core issue was always one of resources; time, space and of course money. In many contexts, we have very large intakes all at one time, while in others, learners can start at any time. With the most expensive staff, teachers, being best placed to administer tests, finding ways to schedule and pay for this meant that online testing can be seen as a great opportunity, and using mobile devices for even greater flexibility the icing on the cake.
Having analysed the performance of different tests in the past however, one thing stood out; that face-to-face, oral spoken tests outperformed online alternatives in terms of both reliability and validity but with accurate placement being a main concern. Developing valid content and criteria for such a test in a TEFL/TESOL school was also really tricky. Luckily, there are some people out there looking to solve exactly these issues. I got the chance to talk to Clarity English’s Adrian Raper who has developed an app for dynamic mobile placement tests.
Edd Aspbury 21.06.17
Adrian’s experience has been with large institutions dealing with thousands of students. At the other end of the spectrum, small independent schools still encounter the same placement issues but might not have the budget for the type of solution Clarity English are offering. Luckily, there is a no-budget option that requires only a small investment of time to create. Enter Google Forms.
Google Forms is part of Google's free and user-friendly and mobile-friendly suite of online apps. Forms is designed for creating online quizzes, questionnaires, surveys and polls and as such has a number of uses for an educational institution. Forms is remarkably easy to use and it takes only a few minutes to learn how to make a basic form: choose a question format, add your answer options - multiple choice, long answer, true/false etc - repeat as necessary, publish, share. You can generate a shareable link (and turn this into a QR code or Google Short*) which students can access directly on their mobile phones. Results can be collected in real time and you can view individual responses or collated responses from all respondents. This information can be reviewed, printed, shared or downloaded as a spreadsheet. After the day’s intake, you can reset the form and it is ready to go with the same link, conveniently saved in your Google Drive.
There are doubtless other free programmes that could support online placement tests, but Google Forms' ease of use, ease of sharing and integration with other Google apps makes it especially convenient and efficient.
What this means is that you can give placement tests without paper, computers, desks, pens, and with few additional staff. Students can complete the test on their phones as they come in, with no login required, and staff can see the responses immediately meaning no waiting around or big backlogs. Responses can be stored away if need be and the test itself can be reused an infinite number of times and can be edited without changing the link.
Someone does have to sit down and create the test in the first place and administer the responses but if you are looking for a low-budget, simple solution, you can't get cheaper than free, and it doesn't get easier to use than Google Forms.
What the app doesn't do is mark the tests for you. This will still have to be done by a member of staff but the fact that it will be printed, rather than hand written, and clear formats should make this process easier.
The app is also unable to prevent students ‘cheating’ by exiting the form and using other functions on their phone or simply talking to other students. This may not be such an issue as it would become immediately obvious if a student had cheated once classes start. As with any placement test, online or offline, it is important to make clear the purpose of the test to limit instances of cheating and a member of staff may need to be hovering around students while they complete the tests if there is a likelihood of cheating.
As with offline placement tests, results are only a guide and reshuffles are inevitable. Using Google forms will not make the tests more accurate, just more efficient and convenient for all involved.
The real issue with using online solutions is about WiFi. Too many students trying to access the form at one time may slow or even crash the system so in the case of really large numbers of students coming in at one time, it might be prudent to release the link to students in batches.
Google Forms can help schools administer placement tests with a minimum of resources in a way convenient to both students and to the institution. It's free, easy to use and reuse and to adapt. There are of course some potential issues but as with all things, preparation and thoughtful implementation can avoid any serious issues.
Google Forms is of course, the no-budget option. Larger institutions with a serious administrative problem with placement tests can upgrade to purpose-built online placement software of the kind Clarity English are offering.