Who’s Cheating on English Tests: Migrants or the UK Government?

Most tests are made for a simple but perverse reason: to incite the clever or privileged to cheat creatively. The Daily Devil's Dictionary explains.
TOEIC, Test of English for International Communication, English test, UK government, British government, UK news, English language test, UK news, British news, Migrants in the UK

© Lamai Prasitsuwan

April 26, 2019 01:00 EDT

The Guardian reveals a scandal that the author claims is bigger than Windrush in the degree of its injustice to immigrants. “About 34,000 foreign students have had their visas cancelled or curtailed and more than 1,000 people were forcibly removed from the UK as a result of the English language testing scandal, which involved the government accusing tens of thousands of students who sat a Home Office-approved test of cheating,” Amelia Gentleman reports.

Here is today’s 3D definition: 


An efficient way of achieving what most tests are designed to do: to separate the clever and ambitious from the submissive

Contextual note 

The claim in the above definition — that tests exist to incite the clever or privileged to cheat — is an exaggeration. No one seriously sees cheating as a measure of ability, but any lucid observer will notice, first, that the incentive to cheat is strong and, second, that much of what passes for test preparation is a form of cheating.

And it works by degrees. Because of its design, the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) can be gamed by someone who learns the tricks of its strategy and understands the simplistic philosophy of its scoring system. Many candidates pay to attend courses to learn how to game it and do perform better by learning the tricks. Certain sites provide TOEIC cheat sheets.

This author’s own team ran an experiment in 2011 to coach a group of 40 university-level students in France for a week. After five days of coaching and simulated tests, their scores on official sample tests increased on an average by more than 200 points between the Monday morning and the Friday afternoon. In a significant number of cases, this meant making a major jump with regard to the official levels of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. During those five days, not one of those students actually improved their ability to use the English language in any significant way. They did, however, feel more comfortable doing a test that is designed to make candidates feel uncomfortable.

Within the realm of education, tests in any subject tend to be measures of conformity rather than ability. That may explain why certain forms of cheating or giving oneself an advantage over others are tolerable and possibly even encouraged. It demonstrates a commitment to conformity. But once the use and significance of test results enter into the realm of politics, anything can happen, and often it’s the worst that prevails.

The Guardian describes the oppressive and unjust attitude promoted by Theresa May when she was home secretary as part of the government’s determination to cultivate a “hostile environment” for migrants. Because some documented examples of serious cheating took place, the “Home Office cancelled the visas of tens of thousands of students who had taken the [TOEIC] test, large numbers of whom protest that they did not cheat. More than 4,000 have left the country without an opportunity to prove their innocence, having been told that they could be arrested if they did not leave.”

Suspicion of cheating, rather than discovery of it actually happening, thus became the means of keeping the undesirables out.

Historical note

The team at The Daily Devil’s Dictionary has to laugh at the futility of a story that demonstrates some obvious failings of both politics and a certain tradition of education, one that believes learning and the acquisition of competence can be reduced to the challenge of preparing for a test.

We have a particular reason for laughing. Having worked for many years in the area of language learning and evaluation, a dedicated team at Fair Observer Training Academy has created and intends to release in the near future an authentically cheat-proof language level test for English that measures actual capacity to use the English language rather than the ability candidates have to identify correct answers.

It works by immersing the person being tested in a series of contexts in the form of interactive conversations and measures their capacity to use the language within the dynamics of a conversation whose direction they influence. That means there is no way of preparing or predicting the “right answers,” especially as there are no right answers but rather more or less appropriate and well formulated responses to a dynamic situation. We are continuing to present a working prototype to potential investors, many of whom fail to understand the interest of a test that doesn’t focus on right or wrong answers, but how people function in complex, evolving situations.

Every stage of the process involves adapting to and influencing the developing logic of non-linear situations, a specific methodology we developed — along with the powerful authoring tools it requires — precisely with the idea that the only valid test is a test in which cheating serves no purpose or is impossible to organize.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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