When To Protest Test Content

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Recently, more than  12,000 French students signed a petition objecting to the use of the word “coping” in a question on the national English exam. They argue that since there is no simple translation of the verb “to cope” in French, the question is simply too hard.

Students said the question was  “incomprehensible” and “impossible to answer.” That’s simply not true. Coping is a frequently used and very important concept in English. Had the word been something more obscure, “quixotic,” for instance, the students might have a case. In my opinion, to ask about “coping” makes for a rather difficult test question, but a fair one.

While thankfully no one has started an online petition, we have changed our iTEP test content several times to ensure questions are not culturally biased. One test question I recall had worked well in many other countries, but was causing confusion at our test centers in China. The question was about after school “clubs,” which, we came to learn, do not exist in China.

The question was changed, as was a question that mentioned “pen pals” on our iTEP SLATE exam. One of our partner high schools pointed out that their students—who would be far more likely to send a tweet than a letter—didn’t know what a pen pal was. In this digital age, I guess we should have seen that one coming.

It’s actually a testament to our test developers that there are very few cases like these. Their goal is to make test content that could not possibly be offensive to anyone (including, for instance, conservative female test-takers in Saudi Arabia), is not culturally-specific, and is not obtuse or overly academic. Along the way, some common English words may not translate well to other languages. In those cases, test-takers just have to cope.

See this article as it originally appeared on Linked In

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