The High Stakes Use of Language Proficiency Tests as Illusio and Pyramid Scheme: An Evaluation of Their Social Aspects, Validity, and Reliability

The High Stakes Use of Language Proficiency Tests as Illusio and Pyramid Scheme: An Evaluation of Their Social Aspects, Validity, and Reliability

Rifat Kamasak (Yeditepe University, Turkey), Mustafa Ozbilgin (Brunel University, UK) and Ali Rıza Esmen (Independent Researcher, Turkey)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-4036-7.ch010
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Abstract

There is a growing trend in using high stakes standardised test scores to evaluate individuals' academic and professional language proficiency. Although these tests determine the fates of millions of students and job seekers across the world, several aspects of these tests such as their design, ethical implementation, procedural fairness, and validity and reliability are questioned by many linguists. This chapter aims to evaluate the mostly criticised social and technical aspects of high stakes language tests from a pyramid scheme perspective. In order to achieve this aim, a number of empirical studies from the extant literature are reviewed, and some comments are provided in the conclusion section.
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Introduction

Internationalisation of English language credentials as proxy for competency across many fields of work and professions has meant that the use of standardised language tests has become globally widespread. High-stakes standardised language tests such as International English Language Testing System (IELTS) and the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) which are commonly used across the world for recruiting people, issuing certificates by recognised bodies, and allowing one to enter an education organisation (Cho & Bridgeman, 2012; Wilson, 1999; Zahedi & Shamsaee, 2012) influence the future academic and professional life of many people (Chalhoub-Deville & Deville, 2006; Deygers, 2017; Kane, 2013; Pearson, 2019). Hamid (2016) claims that institutions such as British Council, Cambridge Assessment English, IDP (International Development Program of Australian Universities) and ETS (Educational Testing Service) “are invested with enormous power to shape the destinies of millions of people globally” (p. 472). The context in which high-stakes language tests are accepted as proxy for a wide range of work and life related competencies can be framed with the Bourdieusian concept of illusio (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992). Illusio is the allure of a cultural, social, or economic game that people play and lose their ability to develop a healthy vision of the game by the act of playing it routinely. The authors of this chapter question here how the high-stakes language tests are so widely used above and beyond their original intended purpose that they constitute an illusio.

Chalhoub-Deville and Deville (2006) consider high-stakes language tests as “a linguistic threshold that enables [students] to approach academic work in English in a meaningful manner” (p. 520). Yet, several researchers (i.e., Deygers, 2017; McNamara & Ryan, 2011) who emphasise the important role of language tests in distributing social justice draw attention on ethical testing, procedural fairness, inequities or imbalances which may not always be present prior to the introduction of that test. Pearson (2019) criticises high-stakes language tests in seven aspects: “the Englishes of the test, idiosyncrasies specific to the writing modules, test fees, the interpretation of scores, test feedback, the management of challenges to results, and the retake policy” (p. 198). According to Thorpe et al. (2017), high-stakes tests create a multibillion-dollar testing industry which is rooted to another financially driven global higher-education industry. Like all other speculative industries, which grew with the hope of immediate individual gain, language test industry also displays the hallmarks of a pyramid scheme in terms of its toxic appeal, and its highly speculative promises of credentials and upward social and career mobility.

Pyramid scheme is a good metaphor for high-stakes language tests as a pyramid scheme is defined as a scheme which attracts a large number of people under often fraudulent, short term, or other unsustainable promise (Nat & Keep, 2002; Nolasco, Vaughn, & del Carmen, 2013). A pyramid scheme is sustained because people who join the game with the allure of the scheme fail to develop a healthy distance to the rules of the game. This is similar to the notion of illusio by Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992) who elaborate that when people join a game, the allure of the game prevent them from developing a healthy view and a critique of the game. High-stake languages tests are not simple business frauds. What makes the difference between a business fraud and a pyramid scheme is that the latter has a certain allure and promise that many of the participants believe in the return on their investment (Krige 2012), even when only the initial few participants could truly benefit, as it is the case with a high-stakes language test, that now has become too widely used to generate the promised returns for all participants as it did once.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Pyramid Scheme: A scheme which attracts many people under often fraudulent, short term, or other unsustainable promise.

Reliability: The consistency of test scores across facets of the test.

TOEFL: A high stakes test used to assess people’s English language proficiency.

Illusio: The allure of a cultural, social, or economic game that people play and lose their ability to develop a healthy vision of the game by the act of playing it routinely.

Trinitarian Approach: An approach that considers criterion-oriented (predictive), content, and construct validity for the assessment of test validity.

High Stakes Tests: A linguistic threshold that enables people to measure their English language proficiency in a meaningful manner.

Language Proficiency Assessment: Measuring language skills of a person through testing methods.

Validity: Discovering whether a test measures accurately what it is intended to measure or not.

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