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EFL teachers’ views of english language assessment in higher education in the united arab emirates and kuwait

EFL Teachers’ Views of English Language
Assessment in Higher Education in the
United Arab Emirates and Kuwait
University of Exeter
Exeter, England

Dubai Men’s College
Dubai, United Arab Emirates

University of Kuwait
Kuwait City, Kuwait

Ⅲ Issues of assessment design and implementation in Kuwait and the
United Arab Emirates (UAE) have attracted some attention over recent
years, but teachers’ philosophies about assessment remain underexplored. This article reports the findings of a qualitative study into the
assessment roles and philosophies of a group of teachers of English as a
foreign language (EFL) in the UAE and Kuwait. Based on an open-ended
questionnaire, the study showed that teachers’ views on the nature of

assessment were informed by their knowledge of the field of language
learning and teaching and by the contextual milieu and sociopolitical
factors that govern their employment conditions. The study also showed
that teachers did not play a major role in assessment because of top-down
managerial approaches to education and a concern for validity and quality assurance in large programmes.
Assessment continues to play a major role in learning and teaching
and is extensively and intensively addressed in research studies and theoretical articles both in mainstream education and TESOL/TEFL literature. However, the majority of published work in testing is still informed
by psychometric views of assessment. The view of assessment espoused
in this article does recognise elements of validity and reliability of the
psychometric model, but it goes beyond them to view assessment as an
act of social and cultural practice and the product of a complex interaction of political, educational, economic, and historical factors and agendas (Pennycook, 1994, 2001; Shohamy, 2001). We define assessment as
“the process of collecting information about a student to aid in decision making about the progress and language development of the student” (Cheng, Rogers, & Hu, 2004, p. 363).With this practical definition,


however, we also believe that assessment is an exercise of power that is
caught up in an array of issues about testers’ and test-takers’ voices, roles,
and beliefs. This critical view of assessment, with an agenda of understanding and social change, suggests that teachers, students, and other
stakeholders “construct the assessment knowledge by trying to make
sense of the knowledge in a dialogical and co-operative way” (Shohamy,
p. 136).
Although little research is being conducted into teachers’ beliefs and
attitudes toward assessment practices and how these are shaped by cultural and institutional contexts (Davison, 2004), some recent research
studies have started exploring the role of the English as a foreign language and English as a second language (EFL/ESL) teacher and his/her
views of what constitutes an enriching assessment practice. Cheng et al.
(2004), for example, report multifaceted and complex roles played by
university instructors in Canada, Hong Kong, and China. This large-scale
comparative study found that teachers’ practices varied in three major
areas: assessment purposes, methods, and procedures. These differences,
within and across settings, were due to varying cultural, institutional, and
contextual factors; the nature of the courses; teachers’ knowledge of
assessment; teaching experience; students’ needs; and the role of “external testing on teaching and learning” (p. 378).
In another comparative study by Davison (2004), 24 secondary school
teachers in Hong Kong and Australia were asked about their views and
interpretations of the construct being assessed, with specific reference to
written argument and whether they felt that their judgements were
trusted and legitimated in their communities. The qualitative data
revealed that teachers’ practices and orientations can be classified along

a cline “from assessor as technician, to interpreter of the law, to principled yet pragmatic professional, to arbiter of ‘community’ values, to assessor as God” (p. 324). This variety in interpretation of roles was also linked
to the effect of assessment approaches such as norm-, criterion-, or construct-referenced on teachers’ views and how they interact with teachers’
Thus far, several studies have looked into teachers’ assessment practices, with a few focusing on teachers’ beliefs and knowledge affecting
their decision-making processes in classroom-based assessment (Chang,
2005; Davison, 2004). No research of this kind, however, has been conducted in the Gulf region. So far, all studies have concentrated on either
the psychometric and quantitative element of assessment with a focus on
students’ performance (e.g., Addamigh, 2006; Gamaroff, 2006) or on a
number of factors involved in the testing of the four language skills (e.g.,
Al-Busaidi, 2007; Al-Hamly & Coombe, 2005; Lanteigne, 2008). Farah’s
(2007) study on the effects that a high-stakes international test has on students’ access to a field of study of their choice is the only research with a


critical agenda aimed at questioning certain assessment practices in the
Gulf region. Looking into issues of consequential and ethical validity,
Farah uncovered some of the detrimental effects that some major tests
have on students’ lives. The study also found that teachers did not have a
voice and had no choice but to use externally imposed criteria to assess
their students. Continuing with this particular interest in teachers’ voice,
the current study aims to redress a major gap in the assessment literature
in the Gulf.
Informed by a sociocultural perspective and located within a broad
interpretive and participatory framework, this study also draws on work
done in the area of critical language testing to raise such issues as voice
and inclusion in assessment decision making about test format, content,
and structure. This framework allows us to investigate teachers’ roles and
views of assessment in the UAE and Kuwait. The unique situation of the
expatriate English language teacher (ELT) in these two countries is likely
to play a significant role in the assessment scene.

The study sought to address the following main questions: What are
teachers’ roles in student assessment in the UAE and Kuwait, and what
are teachers’ assessment philosophies? With an interpretive framework
of research that seeks to “develop an in-depth and interpreted understanding of the social world” (Ritchie & Lewis, 2003, p. 22) by focusing
on the individual as the main source of this interpretation, we developed
an open-ended questionnaire to assist us in collecting rich qualitative
data (Holliday, 2001). For logistical reasons it was not possible to conduct
interviews with participants, who worked in different parts of the UAE
and Kuwait. We therefore developed a set of open-ended questions which
we sent via e-mail to a number of tertiary institutions where we thought
teachers interested in the issue of assessment were likely to participate in
the study. This purposive sampling technique is appropriate for the aims
of this exploratory qualitative study (Dörnyei, 2007).
The questions developed for the open-ended qualitative questionnaire
(see appendix) were contextual, explanatory, and generative in nature.
They were meant to help us identify what exists in terms of assessment
practices in the social world of the participants, explain why phenomena
occurred, examine reasons and forces behind their occurrence, and generate and develop new conceptions or understanding (Richards, 2003;
Ritchie & Lewis, 2003). The nature of the questions allowed the participants to express their views, and in some cases they replied in considerable detail.



The Participants
A total of 21 tertiary ELTs replied to our invitation to take part in
this study. We followed established ethical research procedures, and
all participants gave us their consent to use the data for publication
and oral dissemination purposes. Pseudonyms were used to protect the
identities of the participants, who represented a total of nine colleges
and universities. All of them are expatriate teachers from a wide range
of countries such as Sudan, the United Kingdom, the United States,
and Egypt, working for fixed and renewable contracts. The majority
hold master’s degrees in TEFL/TESL or applied linguistics, and three
hold doctorates; their teaching experience ranges from 3 to more than
20 years. The participants work in a variety of English for academic
purposes (EAP) programmes which prepare students for their transition to university departments where subjects are taught through the
medium of English, a common educational policy in the Gulf (Troudi,
2007). Three participants work in English for specific purposes (ESP)

Data Collection and Analysis
Given our personal views on assessment, our familiarity with many of
the institutions where the participants worked, and our critical agenda,
we sought to minimize the impact of our views on the analysis of the data.
We therefore attempted to use a “strategic and technical detachment”
approach to both data collection and analysis (Holliday, 2001,
p. 178). To avoid imposing our views on the data, we analyzed it using
exploratory content analysis. The emerging themes were categorised and
codified and then compared with the whole set of data using a constant
comparison method that included reading and rereading within and
across the responses of the participants (Lalik & Potts, 2001). The analysis revealed a number of recurrent themes, minor categories, and even
some individual occurrences. However, it is beyond the scope of this article to include all the findings, such as the variety of practices in the two

The participants invoked a number of varied personal views toward
assessment, but there were also some points of similarity, which are discussed in the following sections.



Teachers’ Roles: Exclusion Versus Inclusion
One recurrent theme was that teachers were not involved in assessment decision making about matters of approach and design. Some
teachers did not participate in the process of designing assessment tools
which dealt with areas of content, format, number of test items, and
marking rubrics. Some teachers also reported that when institutional
changes in assessment occurred, teachers were often excluded and their
views were not solicited. A number of EAP programmes had a structured
and hierarchical approach to assessment planning and implementation.
Testing committees or supervisors were in charge of developing policies
and assessment tools because teachers were perceived not to have expertise in this area. In fact, in some cases teachers were not informed about
the content of midterm or final tests and had to wait until the testing day
to discover this with their students. This element of secrecy caused many
teachers to feel distrusted and disrespected. One of our teacher informants, Ahmed, considered that “teachers should be given more power in
assessing their own students in a way that meets students’ needs and
future/expected job demands,” and his opinion was echoed by others in
different institutions. Because these programmes have large numbers of
EFL teachers, efficiency, practicality, and reliability require that assessment be centrally managed, which allows only a few teachers to be directly
involved in decisions on assessment. Another explanation is that teacher
evaluation is linked, although not officially, to students’ performance, so
there is a concern that teachers might be inclined to assist their own students to achieve high grades if they were involved in writing tests. This
distrust was mutual: Some of the excluded teachers felt that the problem
was that, as one of the informant teachers put it, “there was very little to
no expertise and/or training. It is often done by people who think that
they know what they are doing but in reality have no idea of basic testing
theory.” Employment conditions and policies are at the root of such an
atmosphere of distrust, for expatriate teachers are all contractually
employed, and teacher evaluation and, in some cases, students’ grades
may affect contract renewal.

Teachers’ Philosophies
Alternative Assessment and Fairness
Teachers were aware that one way of ensuring fairness for students
was to use multiple methods in assessing their work. Although they recognized the role of traditional or established measures like standardized tests, they believed that learners would benefit from a variety of


instruments, as stated by Paul, who teaches in one of the institutions in
the UAE:
I believe that there should be a distinct difference between testing and
assessment. While I believe in various forms of traditional testing methods
and the value of them in ESL/EFL, I also believe in the importance of
alternative assessment techniques. Students, in my opinion, should not
always be merely tested on a regular basis or at the end of a particular unit
of study. Instead, they should be regularly assessed on their ability to use
the language in real and meaningful situations. Alternative assessments
are ideal in these instances. Students should also be given more autonomy
in their particular learning situations and alternative assessments such as
peer assessment, portfolios and rubrics/rating scales are excellent for
accomplishing these goals.

Some participants invoked the issue of fairness and viewed authenticity
and multiple-measures assessment as an approach to ensure that tests
were fair and that students were not unfairly disadvantaged. The students’ interests were at the centre of their concern. In fact, one of the
teachers noted that “every effort should be made within an assessment
system to make the assessment of students fair.” In this context, performance-based assessment was suggested as a viable approach. Mohamed,
who teaches EAP to first-year students, explained that “teachers needed
to be trained to implement performance-based assessment in a way that
capitalises on its strength, i.e., validity, and minimises its weakness, i.e.,
Initially, some views seemed to be presented in a culturally detached
manner without references to the local and cultural contexts where the
participants worked. On further exploration, we could see that teachers’
assessment orientations were influenced by internal and external criteria
as well as by their knowledge of their students and the educational and
cultural contexts. Elaborating on his own philosophy, Mohamed stated
that “this personal philosophy is adopted as long as the context is teaching relatively smaller classes to meet specific job and/or community
expectations.” We would add that teachers’ views are also influenced by
their own educational principles and pedagogical experience. This positioning confirms observations made by Davison (2004), who argues that
within a student-based assessment approach, teachers consider “not only
common assessment criteria and community constructs, but also the
learner and the context” (p. 326).

No Assessment Philosophy
One significant finding in this study is that some participants questioned the idea of a philosophy of assessment (or any abstract principles).


They were more concerned about their daily assessment practices and
their impact on students. In fact, Salwa in Kuwait explicitly admitted to
not having a particular philosophy: “I don’t have a philosophy about
assessment. I mean what does that mean? Testing and assessment is a part
of studying that I don’t question much—beyond issues of validity and reliability in individual tests I am involved with.” However, she raises a major
concern about the nature of assessment and what it means to assess a student’s language ability. In addition, although teachers recognised the
intellectual debate about the authenticity and efficiency of assessment,
they do not see a viable alternative. They focus therefore on how to develop
assessment tools that best serve the interests of the students. Assessment
was seen as a learning opportunity and not only as a demonstration of proficiency. These concerns are some of what Shohamy (2001) views as the
main aims of the critical language-testing agenda. Teachers did not explicitly invoke students’ rights and testers’ obligations, but they repeatedly
stated their attention to and concern about the quality of their students’
educational experience.

Technical and Pedagogical Concerns
The focus on the pedagogical and the practical side of assessment was
echoed by the majority of teachers. In the words of one participant, testing is a “complex matter [for] there is not a one-size-fits-all solution”; students may prefer different assessment methods. While aware of the
importance of reliability and content validity, some teachers stressed that
“tests should be a motivating factor for students and, to achieve this,
[a test] must be designed to be a learning as well as assessment experience” (see Leung & Mohan, 2004). It was also clear from a number of
responses that teachers were speaking their minds regardless of institutional practices and mechanisms in place. Their formal knowledge, experience, and educational principles informed their views and their interest
in the educational experience of their students. These views often clashed
with some of the assessment practices put in place by testing committees
and programme directors, as expressed by Pamela:
Tests should be designed so that the format (question types, test structure,
test timing, etc.) doesn’t get in the way of the students showing their “true”
abilities/proficiency/achievement. In light of that, students should be
exposed, several times at least, to whatever format is chosen. Moreover,
the tests must reflect the test specifications which, in turn, reflect the curriculum designed in light of students’ needs.

In this study, contrary to Rea-Dickins’ (2004) observation that teachers often prioritize formal procedures and “underplay the observationdriven approaches to assessment which are strongly in evidence in this


everyday classroom practice” (p. 249), teachers were clearly aware of the
limitations of the current formal procedures and were willing to challenge them.

The analysis revealed a gap between teachers’ philosophies and their
practices. Overall, teachers were not involved in assessment-related decisionmaking processes. They had little voice in this important element of the
curriculum and were marginalised within a top-down managerial approach
to assessment. Most teachers wanted a more effective role and expressed
frustration at being ignored. This echoes findings in the literature that
teachers find themselves at the confluence of different assessment cultures and faced with significant dilemmas in their assessment practices:
sometimes torn between their role as facilitator and monitor of language
development and that of assessor and judge of language performance as
achievement. (Rea-Dickins, 2004, p. 253)

With years of experience in the Gulf, many of these teachers have developed substantial knowledge of the culture of their students and their ways
of learning. It is this knowledge and experience that institutions need to
capitalise on if the situation is to change to a more conducive environment for teaching and learning. Local expertise needs to be recognised
and continuously supported. One way of doing so is by showing more professional respect to teachers’ knowledge and views and by providing them
with professional development opportunities. Despite being mostly voiceless in decisions on assessment matters, the participants in this study
voiced major concerns about the nature of assessment. While recognizing
the importance of standardized and reliable measurement, they stressed
the role of classroom-based teacher assessment that can be used for learning purposes and called for its incorporation into the curriculum.

Salah Troudi teaches applied linguistics and language education at the Graduate
School of Education at the University of Exeter, England. His research interests are in
the areas of teacher education, critical applied linguistics, and language policies. He
coordinates the doctor of education in TESOL program in Dubai.
Christine Coombe has a doctorate in foreign/second language education from the
Ohio State University in the United States. She is currently a faculty member at Dubai
Men’s College in the United Arab Emirates. Her research interests are assessment,
teacher evaluation, teacher effectiveness and leadership skills in English language


Mashael Al-Hamly is an associate professor of applied linguistics at Kuwait University,
Kuwait. She has a doctorate in computer-assisted language learning (CALL) from
the University of East Anglia in England. She has published in regional as well international journals in the areas of CALL, testing, and translation studies.

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Open-Ended Questionnaire
Please try to answer these questions in as much detail as you can. Use as many additional pages
as necessary.
1. How long have you been teaching English in the Gulf?
2. What is your highest educational qualification?
3. What is your personal philosophy about ESL/EFL assessment*?
4. Please describe how students are actually assessed in your current professional context
(please provide concrete examples)
5. What grading system is in use in your institution (how is grade divided in terms of percentage? e.g. midterm 30%, final 50%, projects 10%)?
6. What do you think of the current assessment practices in your institution?
7. Do you have any suggestions about how students should be assessed?
8. What are the teachers’ roles in assessment in your context?
9. Ideally how do you see your role in assessing students’ language?
10. Are there any assessment challenges that teachers face in your context?
11. What coping strategies do you utilise when faced with some of the challenges you

* Assessment could include testing, measurement, and all other ways of evaluating students’



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