Language Learning & Technology
Vol. 5, No. 2, May 2001, pp. 8-12
Testing Tools and Technologies
Paginated PDF version
Virginia Commonwealth University
Computers have been used in language assessment since at least the 1960s. The PLATO project at the University of Illinois pioneered the use of networked computers for language practice and testing. However, the use of computers in language testing did not become widespread and generally available until the advent of the personal computer in the late seventies and early eighties. Among the better-known software packages from the early (DOS) days is Calis from Duke University (still available as an unsupported product). It was designed for active drill and practice of grammar and vocabulary, rather than formal assessment. This was the case as well for Dasher, a widely-used Mac-based program from the University of Iowa. Both programs provided for varied feedback options and recognition/display of partially correct answers. In addition to dedicated language software, generic authoring tools were often used to develop language drill and assessment programs. The best-known of these are HyperCard (from Apple) and Toolbook (from Asymetrix, now click2learn) With both, multimedia could be integrated into the tests or exercises, allowing for more options, including assessing listening comprehension. The arrival of CD-ROM facilitated greatly the use of multimedia in language programs, by providing the necessary storage capacity.
There are today successors to these stand-alone authoring programs, such as WinCalis, the Windows version of Calis. One of the attractive features of WinCalis is its support for Unicode (ISO 10646), which allows representation of a great variety of languages and alphabets simultaneously in an application. MaxAuthor, from the University of Arizona, is another Windows-based authoring program for language testing and practice. It also supports a variety of languages, and lessons can be made Web-accessible.
Although some testing applications have taken advantage of the availability of local area networks (particularly for storing scores centrally), the arrival of the World Wide Web in 1993 with its rich and powerful network environment provided a more attractive -- and ever more pervasive -- networking option. The Web offers the advantages of centralized delivery (and authentication) as well as server-based score storage and retrieval. Initially, the user experience with Web-based tests was not much different from pen and paper versions, with relatively little interactivity or user feedback. Some Web tests continue to use similar approaches with test scoring provided by e-mail or separate Web pages showing the answers (for the test taker to compare with his/her answers). The advantage of using the Web, however, is in the interactivity it enables. This is generally done through the use of Web form pages which are processed by CGI ("Common Gateway Interface") scripts, usually written in Perl. Tests delivered through CGI typically are in machine-correctable formats such as multiple choice or true-false, using checkboxes, radio buttons, or pull-down menus. Usually users must complete the entire test before submitting it and receiving feedback. In CGI-based formats, feedback options are limited and there is rarely recognition of partially correct answers.
One area in which there has recently been considerable activity is the development of Web-based language placement exams. Among them are those from Macalaster, BYU, and Northwestern. All use a server-based CGI delivery for security reasons. Of interest is the use of a computer adaptive testing approach in some on-line placement exams, such as the WebCAPE Tests from BYU. The placement exams under development at Ohio State University use an adaptive testing mechanism combined with authentic language materials shown in their original context.
In addition to these authoring tools, quiz/exercise templates are also available for language teachers, such as those from Marmo Soemarmo. His site provides examples of exercises in a great variety of formats: true-false, multiple choice, matching, feature or category identification, short answer, cloze, sentence generation, hypertext, memory, spelling. By downloading the source code for the examples provided, new content can be added by following the comments included in the code. Test and exercise templates for language learning are also available from Douglas Mills and George Mitrevski.
Computerized testing will inevitably increase in volume and scope. This is happening in all areas, including in major national and international standardized tests. This growth is not without controversy, as evinced in the reaction to the ETS announcement of the use of computerized testing in Africa. As schools demand more frequent standardized testing of students, more of that testing will migrate to computer formats. Many states provide practice tests for students on the Web, such as those from Edutest for the Virginia "Standards of Learning" exams.
On the server end, JSP ("Java Server Pages") is becoming an attractive alternative to CGI. JavaServer Pages technology uses XML-like tags and scriptlets written in the Java programming language, but incorporated into the HTML code, to provide an equivalent to CGI. Java "servlets" residing on the Web server are able to interpret this code and execute the processing of the Web forms. The idea is to separate the page display and formatting from the programming logic, so that interactive pages can be created and maintained by conventional HTML/XML tools. While the approach is similar to that used by Microsoft's ASP ("Active Server Pages"), the JSP approach provides more programming and scripting flexibility as well as multi-platform support. In any case, there is likely to be a database back-end that keeps test information, including questions and answers, as well as scores. There are well-established methods for connecting databases with Web servers, such as ODBC ("Open Database Connectivity"). A popular method to interact with databases is the use of middleware or application development software such as ColdFusion (from Allaire, recently merged with Macromedia), Tango, or Lasso.
Web-Based Testing Resources
Organizations and Institutions
Sample On-line Practice Tests
Language Placement Tests On-line
Test Makers, Tools, and Templates
All links validated on April 16, 2001.
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