Testing times

Does your device of choice bend under 100lbs of pressure? Now is the time to find out, in the definitive bend-or-break test.


We don’t test our students to destruction at OISE. But we do from time to time test them beyond their limit of comfort – in the entry test, specifically, which is designed to see, well, how bendable they are.

Level testing is not like other testing: it is meant to be a chromatography of students, a ranking of a certain sort of knowledge that is likely, but not certain, to correlate with a certain level of competence – in other words, if you can successfully choose from an increasingly arcane set of alternative sentence completions, you can probably get by at speaking and understand as well. To repeat, this is only a putative correlation, something to start from, a little data.

But there are always surprises. Some people are late developers when it comes to fluency, for example; and these individuals often know the most, the soonest. Many years ago I taught a very clever Italian man to a successful Proficiency examination, but he never seemed to understand a word I said at the first go round; and, nice though he was, he was almost impossible to have a conversation with.

Others, meanwhile, do very well with very little. My students will be tired of hearing about the funniest man I ever met, who had an English vocabulary of 100 words and somehow managed to keep an entire room of native speakers in tears of laughter for twenty minutes with a story, if I remember, about how he came to lose his trousers.

Not that he didn’t have room for improvement, of course. But a level test necessarily suffers from a need to universalise knowledge: all items tested, it is supposed, are of the same value to everyone; accuracy and complexity are more important than rapidity and approximate clarity. You can make anyone bend if you apply the pressure in the right (or wrong) place, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Everyone has limits, but to understand accurately or even more or less where those limits start and end, it is necessary, in the end, actually to do something.