What is test validity? And why should you care about it?
This special feature is sponsored by Cambridge University Press & Assessment.
Do you spend a lot of time thinking about test validity? If your answer is a hearty, “No!”, then rest easy. You’re not alone.
But give us at least the next few paragraphs to explain why validity is important, and we promise that you'll come away with some useful new insights for your work with international students.
Validity is a specialised concept in educational assessment, which draws on psychology and educational research. It is of importance for specialists who design and maintain standardised tests, and backed by academics and researchers the world over.
If you were talking to one of those researchers, they would explain that there are a number of different dimensions to validity. The simplest way to understand the concept, however, is that a test is valid if it accurately measures what it aims to measure. That it "does what it says on the tin," as our British colleagues might say.
That is no small matter when you think about the types of standardised tests that international educators rely on most: language proficiency tests such as Cambridge C1 Advanced or IELTS for English or the DELE for Spanish; graduate admissions exams like the LSAT or MCAT; or even qualifying admissions exams such as the SATs in the US or the gaokao in China.
To say the least, these are all high-stakes tests. They are simultaneously a hurdle that the student has to jump over to pursue their goals – and door-openers, in that strong test results can create new opportunities for a student. Any such tests can be life changing.
This is why the concept of validity is so important for all stakeholders in international education. If a language test has validity for higher education, an admissions team can have greater confidence that the test result they're seeing actually reflects the proficiency of the student and their readiness to pursue their intended programme of study. By the same token, a valid test result gives the student greater confidence that they can cope with the demands of the course. This means that students will have a better experience because they are better able to contribute equally in class.
Let's make that idea more concrete by focusing on the changing landscape in language testing for a moment. This has become increasingly complex these last years, in no small part because of the pandemic. COVID-19 forced test centres around the world to close, upended normal test schedules, and abruptly shifted language training and testing online. In the midst of all that, many universities and colleges had to become much more flexible around language requirements. Some institutions adopted test-optional policies, or more flexible admissions timelines for incoming students. Others began to accept a wider range of proficiency tests, which were useful for making rough distinctions between learners’ language proficiency (e.g. beginner, intermediate, or advanced) but couldn’t offer the fine-grained distinctions needed for universities.
With the lockdowns now thankfully behind us, many of those same institutions are now revisiting those decisions, and there are widespread reports of universities stepping back from less suitable language tests in favour of a renewed emphasis on more established, secure, research-based exams focused on measuring language proficiency for higher education.
To make that more concrete again: English Language tests and qualifications from Cambridge are taken by over five million people in 130 countries each year, and recognised by more than 25,000 universities, employers and government departments all over the world.
This success reflects a rigorous commitment to making sure that tests are fit for purpose. That’s why Cambridge develops tests such as C1 Advanced and IELTS Academic, which focus on assessing students' language skills for higher education, using tasks that reflect what they will be asked to do in their studies – listening to a lecture, for example, or giving a presentation, reading a complex text, or writing an essay expressing opinions. This is only one aspect of validity (though a very important one), but it illustrates right away the strong connection between the design of the test, the context in which students will apply their language skills, and their real ability to succeed in an academic setting.
For more on test validity, please see the Principles of Good Practice from Cambridge University Press & Assessment.