Sharon Harvey is the Chief Executive Officer at Michigan Language Assessment. Sharon began her ELT career in South America, working as an English language teacher in Argentina and Brazil, where she taught in Rio de Janeiro. Before joining Michigan Language Assessment, she spent more than 12 years working for Cambridge Assessment English, who she joined as Business Development Manager for Latin America, before working her way up to a director position. Sharon has a BA (Hons) in Spanish & Portuguese from the University of Southampton, an MA from the University of Cambridge, and an MBA from the University of Nottingham, all in the UK, from where Sharon originates.

How is the assessment industry dealing with the pandemic? 

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised many questions for the assessment industry. One of the greatest challenges right now is how to enable test takers to take their exams safely, while at the same time ensuring the security of the exam administration, and therefore the validity of the results. This has led to numerous exam boards offering computer-delivered exams with remote proctoring services, which solves some problems, but also raises a number of issues.

How dependent on paper and pen exams is Michigan? Do you think that this pandemic will be a turning point for the assessment industry with more investment in online, digital exams?

We have offered the Michigan English Placement Test (M-EPT) online for several years now, and some institutions have been delivering it with remote proctoring. M-EPT assesses from CEFR levels A1 to C1, and is being used for placement, progress, and exit testing in multiple contexts.
Michigan Language Assessment’s high stakes exams are currently offered in paper-based format. We will move to offering some of these exams in digital format from 2021, in response to increased demand. However, globally, and within individual countries, there is a clear digital divide, and therefore there is still strong demand for paper-based exams. The question becomes how to deliver these safely in the era of COVID-19. We have been working closely with the Center Exams Managers at Michigan Authorized Test Centers to ensure that, where exam sessions are run this year, they are done so according to international health recommendations, and local requirements.

What do you foresee as the future for language assessment?

One of the greatest demands we are seeing right now is for multi-level exams, as with education interrupted for millions of children around the world, and access to learning and support extremely varied during the past few months, it will be extremely difficult for any school or teacher to get a whole class of students to the same level by the end of the academic year. Therefore multi-level exams, where no test takers fail, and every student achieves a result which reflects their current ability, are an inclusive, motivational alternative to the traditional level-based exam. For school-age learners, there is also increased demand for feedback to support learning, and so exams like Michigan’s MET Go!, which offers personalized feedback and guidance for future learning, are an attractive option.
For young adult and adult test takers, there will likely be a sustained move to digital exam delivery, and an increased desire by potential candidates to take their exams at home. Therefore, I believe that remote proctoring will continue to grow in popularity, in order for remotely delivered exams to be administered as securely as possible.

With the fast growing market for CLIL and bilingual education in Latin America isn’t it time for CLIL-based exams, assessing language but also content?

The notion of CLIL exams is an interesting area, but lots of thinking and research is still needed to determine how best to do this effectively. In assessing two things at the same time (i.e. content and language), there’s always the challenge of knowing which component is driving successful/unsuccessful performance on a test. If a test taker doesn’t get the question correct, is it because they don’t have the English to answer it correctly, do they have the English but not the content knowledge, or do they lack both? However, as educators, we are extremely interested in the area of formative assessment, and feel that with the right assessments integrated into learning, you can potentially support English language learning within different subject areas.

Final remarks

As we emerge from the pandemic, we believe that testing has an important role to play to support education. During the extended periods of mandatory school closings, learners have had uneven access to educational offerings, including English language classes. Some fortunate students may have been able to continue their learning remotely; many others have faced severe disruption to their learning, or may have been unable to study at all. As students return to the classroom when it is safe to do so in their location, teachers will face an even wider disparity in abilities than usual among their students. How can they determine the current levels and learning needs of individual students? Through the use of assessments. Testing can sometimes be viewed negatively by educators, but I firmly believe that schools, teachers, parents and students need high quality assessments to inform and support learning, as we all deal with the far-reaching impacts of the pandemic on the education of a generation of young people.