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A Profile of Dumindi - a Sri Lankan Learner
by Sharon Buddemeier
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The First Certificate in English Exam and Learner Samples


The FCE exam was chosen as the primary assessment tool because it fits with Dumindi’s needs and level. After completing the third and final portion of the upper-intermediate level course at the British Council, Dumindi took two classes in preparation for the FCE exam. This follows the center’s recommendation for learners at her level. She has a definitive plan to take the exam this year and passing the exam is her current priority as it is the first hurdle she must cross in order to reach her goal of entering a UK university.

The most important consideration when choosing a test is that it is useful for the purpose for which it is intended. The FCE exam is particularly useful to Dumindi because she must pass it in order to achieve her goals. Because the results of the exam will have a significant impact on her life, beneficial backwash was one reason that it was chosen. The exam is also useful for me because I am familiar with it having been both the Assessor and the Interrogator for many FCE speaking tests over the last two years. The fact that the test covers the four skill areas and includes language systems is useful for both of us because it allows me to pinpoint areas for Dumindi to work on. The analysis of these areas has allowed me to prioritize and enumerate clear objectives for her short-term study goals.

Testing Factors

When further considering the usefulness of the test, I will look at the qualities of reliability, validity, authenticity, and practicality. The entire exam takes just under 5 hours of ‘testing time’ to complete and there are 5 sections to the exam: Reading (paper 1), Writing (paper 2), Use of English (paper 3), Listening (paper 4), and Speaking (paper 5). I will look at these sections together when evaluating the usefulness of the exam, making reference to particularities of certain sections where applicable.

All of the Cambridge exams are reliable in that they are pre-tested, they have a familiar format that is accessible for free online, and they are constantly being improved (the FCE exam is changing somewhat in December 2008, for example). Reliability simply means that a test is consistent in its measurement. This is pertinent not only because it means that the criteria that I use in the analysis is fair, but also because when the time comes for Dumindi to take the actual test she will feel confident knowing that there are no ‘tricks’ to the exam and that she can depend on its uniformity.

Reliability is achieved in all sections by having specific marking criteria for assessment and by making the learner aware of these criteria. The exam gives clear instructions and allows for totally objective scoring in Papers 1, 3, and 4. Papers 2 and 5 are marked somewhat subjectively, but using qualified, trained examiners and having detailed marking criteria ensures their reliability. There is discreet item testing in Paper 3, and all of the papers have a number of texts and topics. This gives the learner the opportunity to re-focus and attempt each area with a fresh start.

The Cambridge FCE has high face validity because it is internationally recognized and respected. Moreover, its internal validity means that the marks reflect the areas of language ability I want to measure, and little else. This is essential because it means that the analysis that I make of Dumindi’s English language ability, with the premise that I am able to analyze language properly, will be accurate and useful to her as she prepares for the exam and for further study and not skewed because of the test itself.

Validity is achieved by ensuring that the tasks are authentic, integrative, and communicative. The reading texts are authentic and of different genres (3 articles from different types of publications and an interview) and the writing tasks and topics are relevant to EFL learners and are not particularly culturally biased (letters to friends, food, family). Paper 3 tests a wide range of grammatical systems that a learner at this level should be able to use with some degree of success. The number of structures that it tests allows me to identify and analyze particular areas that Dumindi needs to work on. Similarly, Paper 4 tests a number of listening skill areas through use of very different genres such as two friends talking and a radio program.

The examinees can choose the person that they want to do the communicative speaking paper with and the subjects discussed are again relevant and neutral. The level of lexis is appropriate to each task, and the skills and systems are integrated. For example, listening and speaking in Paper 5, and reading and writing in Paper 2, Part 1. Cross-analysis of the data will help to show areas in need of improvement as well.

Authenticity is closely related to validity because it relates the test tasks to the general area that we want to interpret. The FCE exam does this by extensive use of a variety of authentic reading and listening texts, maps, charts, and photographs. This genuineness also helped make certain that Dumindi responded positively to the tests and performed at her best at that given moment.

Practicality in the context of this situation is not related to usefulness of the test, but to the way the test is implemented and marked. I had the available and required resources necessary to give Dumindi the test and to do so under exam-like conditions. In addition, I was able to mark papers 1, 3, and 5 quickly and easily using the First Certificate Practice Book 1 Test 4 answer key. It was also practical because I am an FCE examiner and have experience marking paper 5

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