Sherris, A. (2003). [Review of the book The Power of Tests: A Critical Perspective on the Uses of Language Tests by E. Shohamy]. TESOL Quarterly, 37(1), 189–190.
The Power of Tests: A Critical Perspective on the Uses of Language Tests.
Elana Shohamy. Harlow, England: Pearson Education, 2001.
Pp. xi + 182.
Shohamy has trenchantly articulated the issues that surround the uses and misuses of high-stakes tests in the current age of near-neurotic accountability. This book documents the sociopolitical contexts and the global cultures of power-wielding, top-down authority—quite simply, the voices of the oppressor and the oppressed. Shohamy is direct, clear, and cogent. Language is never limp or dehumanizing. The voices of despair are clear and authentic, as when she recounts the following experience shared with a fellow scholar in language testing and assessment:
On a memorable night in a bar . . . in . . . the Netherlands, during a conference on language testing, my friend and colleague Tim McNamara and myself found ourselves deeply engaged in a conversation with a drug junkie. . . [who] recalled . . . taking a standardized test in 7th grade and failing it badly . . . . From that point on his father started rejecting him. This eventually led to a series of events that turned our conversation partner into an outcast in his family leading him to leave home and gradually reach the point where he is at now. Needless to say we felt responsible, a face-to-face encounter with one of “our own” victims. (p. 8)
Shohamy is quick to say that the point is not the truth or falsity of this particular, personal story or, for that matter, the truth or falsity of the testimony by many other test takers that she felicitously recounts. The point is the perception of powerlessness by test takers and the sociocultural consequences.
Shohamy argues that tests in and of themselves are not usually the cause of such an unpleasant state of affairs. The culprit is, rather, what is done with tests: Sometimes they are deployed as a disciplinarian’s tool, forcing the test taker to conform; at other times they are the tool of state policy in schemes of accountability, compliance, and standardization, forcing teachers to teach to a test. Shohamy writes, “Tests can be used for surveillance to quantify, classify and punish” (p. 17). This book could serve as one piece in a larger narrative of how democracy sabotages itself, for it is in the countries where democracy plays itself out in an enlightened form that the worst transgressions of humanity seem to have been perpetrated—and against children, the last bastion of the oppressed. If Shohamy’s narrative fails at all, it is in not stating this sad paradox.
It is no secret that public education is in the stranglehold of high-stakes, standardized testing and assessment across the curriculum. The situation is perhaps acutely painful in the sensitive area of language, for language is a uniquely human attribute, even a gift, reflecting the versatility and creativity of the human spirit. With language diversity growing in North American schools, education should be broadening the scope of its best practices in order to generate thoughtful, critical, and creative citizens who celebrate linguistic variety and change. Much to the contrary is the current course of events. Shohamy points a finger at the expanded role of tests when she writes, “Turning tests into a means for change, into instrumental devices for promoting agendas, narrows the process of education . . . . making it merely instrumental and not meaningful” (p. 110). Finally, at the outset of Shohamy’s critical and creative piece is a simple, touching rhetorical question posed by John Oller in a personal communication to Shohamy, dated May 26, 1998: “Isn’t it possible to have testing of the people, for the people and by the people?” (p. viii). Possible, yes. On the horizon? Not yet.
Center for Applied Linguistics
Washington, DC, United States