Language Tests as Social Sorting Mechanisms for the Professional Workplace

Presented by ANU College of Arts & Social Sciences

Standards are physical or behavioural mechanisms which make society orderly (Busch, 2011; Star & Lampland, 2009). They include laws (drive on the right), physical objects (traffic lights, money) and social expectations (appropriate tipping). Language tests are also used as social sorting mechanisms when they are implemented to control who can enter an institution, a professional domain or a jurisdiction. Standardized language tests arise in particular sociolinguistic situations, most obviously, where standard languages, such as English, are routes to professional employment opportunities. In such circumstances the ability to use a high-status variety of language intertwined with the ability to understand professional knowledge has become the focus for an increasing number of assessments at the boundaries of professional domains. Tests have a tendency to nurture the perception of a monolingual workplace and to generate further standardizing mechanisms, such as test preparation courses. Test scores become ‘common sense’ in institutions and enshrined in policies as ‘objective’ standards. The more entrenched they are, the more power they wield and the more lives they shape. In the face of such unremitting standardization processes, a key question is: how are tests shaping people’s lives, languages and work practices? And further, how can test design achieve beneficial impact for the various stakeholders, such as policy-makers, visa applicants and other participants in test-guarded workplaces?

Susy Macqueen is a lecturer in the School of Literature, Languages & Linguistics at the Australian National University. She has extensive test development and research experience, including studies of the social impact of high-stakes language tests. Her book, The Emergence of Patterns in Second Language Writing (2012), traced the development of the writing of English language learners, first as they prepared to take a university entrance language test and later as they entered their academic disciplines. She is currently working on a book (with Ute Knoch) titled Assessing English for Professional Purposes: Language and the Workplace.