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LTRC 2020 Opening Symposium

Issues, policies and research in language assessment in Africa and the Arab world

Organizer: Albert Weideman, University of the Free State,

Moderator: Hanan Khalifa, Cambridge English

The symposium showcases the work being done in language assessment in South and North Africa and in the Arab world, and its topic is closely aligned with the conference theme. In South Africa, language assessment has come into its own as a field since 2004. The first paper surveys the history of language assessment there over the last 15 years, while the second identifies some of the unique contributions these developments have made to our greater understanding of the constructs being assessed. The third and fourth contributions deal with the policy pitfalls and assessment literacy challenges of the MENA region, and how these continue to affect responsible assessment practices.

Paper 1: Language assessment in South Africa 1999-2019: An overview

Tobie van Dyk, North-West University

During the period 1999-2019, the field of language testing in South Africa was dominated by investigations into the ability to handle the language demands of higher education in particular. This presentation draws on numerous data sets and publications spanning these two decades. The data from these assessments are available across institutions and years, and the thesis of this presentation is that they are being underutilized. The main objectives of the paper are firstly to provide an overview (including the status quo) of the field of language and literacy assessment in South Africa since 1999, inclusive of an indication of the most prominent authors and publications and the most frequently used terminology. Secondly it will identify typical topics, issues and trends addressed in the published research. It will provide a critical, albeit constructive analysis of published research in the fields of language and literacy testing, and consequently language development – in applied linguistics, test data are often utilised to inform course and syllabus design. The methodological approach followed is that of “Best evidence review”, comprising methods of classification, synthesis and comparison in organising the literature. This presentation will conclude with a reference to gaps in our research on pre- and post-intervention language and literacy testing, as well as observations about the beneficial effects of renewed interest in language assessment in South Africa: the institutionalization of expertise in partnerships like the Inter-institutional Centre for Language Development and Assessment (ICELDA), the SADILaR initiative, and the Network of Expertise in Language Assessment (NExLA).


Paper 2: Aligning language policy, language assessment and language curricula: Academic literacy interventions in higher education

Albert Weideman, University of the Free State

The management of language diversity affects language intervention design in South Africa at various levels, from early education through to higher education. This paper will deal with three dimensions of how language is managed and developed in education, with particular reference to how these challenges have been met in South Africa over the past 15 years. The first dimension concerns interventions at policy level, as well as for instruction and for language development. The second dimension concerns the conceptual gains that have been made in South Africa by defining more adequately the kind of competence needed to handle the language demands of tertiary education. The third concerns meeting the requirement of aligning language policy, language assessment and language development (and the language instruction supporting the latter). The paper will use a widely used definition of academic literacy to illustrate how this has supported the design of language assessments and language courses not only in South Africa, but more widely. Assessments and language instruction (and development) work together in harmony. Misalignment among them is likely to affect the original intention of the designs negatively. Similarly, if those interventions are not supported by institutional policies, the plan will have little effect. The principle of alignment is an important, but not the only design condition. The paper will therefore conclude with an overview of a comprehensive framework of design principles for language interventions that may serve to enhance their responsible design, and that have been used productively in developing language assessments in South Africa.


Paper 3: Language assessment in North Africa: Policies and practices

Mohamed Daoud, University of Carthage

Moez Athimni, University of Carthage

English language teaching (ELT) in North Africa (Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco) started in the late 1950s, after independence from France. As English established itself as a global language, the three countries developed programmes to promote EFL/ESP, but were successful neither in switching from French to English as a language of wider communication nor in ensuring the development of adequate functional competence in English to serve today's communication needs. This presentation focuses on assessment as a key factor in the relative success or failure of ELT policy, planning and implementation in the region, using a high-stakes test, the baccalaureate English exam, as an example. It describes the mindset which has driven policy, planning and implementation and reviews the prevailing assessment practices in terms of test design, administration and scoring.

Paper 4: Exploring teachers’ language assessment literacy in the MENA region: Realities and uncertainties

Sahbi Hidri, University of Tunis,

Peter Davidson, Zayed University

Paul Jaquith, Ministry of Education, UAE

Language assessment literacy (LAL) is about teachers’ ability to know when, how and what to assess. It is also about accountability and improvement to certify learning and align local standards with international ones. LAL therefore also concerns maintaining ethics and standards in assessment. All of these concerns have immediate impact on educational and societal values, as well as on learners, teachers, language programs, curricula, educationists, policy makers and institutions. In the MENA region, there is a disparity between the LAL policies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and those of North Africa. Bilingual GCC countries, for example, have been taking the lead in trying to adhere to international benchmarks, ably supported by language teacher associations. On the other hand, multilingual North African countries have been lagging behind because of the controversies pertaining to teachers’ LAL and policies of test design, uses and interpretations of scores. Some stakeholders overlook the consequences and impact of assessment policies on the individual, societal and educational levels. As a result, such ambiguous and uncertain LAL policies have impacted these countries at two major levels: their students’ poor performance in international standardized exams and the international ranking of their universities. This presentation will discuss the empirical data that demonstrate these consequences. The challenge remains how to raise the MENA stakeholders’ awareness to be engaged in serious and comprehensive assessment reforms in order to improve assessment literacy in the region and meet the requirements of international benchmarks and standards.

Hanan Khalifa leads a team of Cambridge English experts working with ministries of education and international development agencies. Her expertise lies in language testing and institutional capacity building. She received the Hornby Award for ELT and was a joint winner of the 2013 IEAA award for innovation in International Education.




Tobie van Dyk is an applied linguist and Professor and Director: School of Languages, North-West University. He is chairperson of the Inter-institutional Centre for Language Development and Assessment (ICELDA), and node manager in the South African Centre for Digital Language Resources (SADiLaR). His research interests are in language testing and academic literacy development.





Albert Weideman is Professor of Applied Language Studies at the University of the Free State. He is the deputy chairperson of the Network of Expertise in Language Assessment (NExLA). His research focuses on how language assessment, course design, and policy relate to a theory of applied linguistics.





Mohamed Daoud (PhD, UCLA) is Professor of Applied Linguistics, Higher Institute of Languages of Tunis (ISLT). He is an English language teaching specialist with an interest in language-in-education policy and planning, curriculum development, teacher education and language assessment. He has helped establish professional teacher organizations in Tunisia, Algeria and Saudi Arabia.




Moez Athimni is an assistant professor of English Language and Linguistics at the University of Carthage, and has worked on the assessment of pragmatic competence. He is the coordinator of the Applied Research Centre for Language Teaching and Evaluation (ARCLTE), and has published internationally on the assessment of EFL writing in the Arab world.




Sahbi Hidri is assistant professor of applied linguistics, University of Tunis, and assessment senior specialist for the education division, Higher Colleges of Technology, UAE. Sahbi is the founder of Tunisia TESOL and the Arab Journal of Applied Linguistics. His research interests include assessment literacy, second language acquisition, and dynamic assessment.





Peter Davidson teaches at Zayed University in Dubai, having previously taught in New Zealand, Japan, the UK and Turkey. He has recently co-edited Language Assessment in the Middle East and North Africa (2017, TESOL Arabia), and The Cambridge Guide to Second Language Assessment (2012, CUP).






Paul Jaquith is a system expert in educational measurement for the Ministry of Education in the United Arab Emirates. His current responsibilities are with the Emirates Standardized Test (EmSAT). A graduate of Columbia University, he has been working in language testing and educational measurement for more than 25 years.

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