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< Brita Fernandez Schmidt John Agard >
More about our plenaries...
Barry O’Sullivan is Head of Assessment Research & Development at the British Council, and creator of the Aptis testing service. He has almost 100 publications and delivered over 160 conference presentations around the world (over half as keynote, invited or plenary). His most recent book is English on the Global Stage: the British Council and English Language Testing 1941 to 2016, co-authored with Cyril Weir (Equinox 2017). Barry is active in language testing globally working with ministries, universities and examination boards on test development and validation projects. He is interested in the past and future of language testing, validation theory, communicating validation outcomes, and technology in assessing productive skills. He is the founding president of the United Kingdom Association for Language Testing and Assessment (UKALTA), holds honorary and visiting professorships at the Universities of Reading, Roehampton and Lisbon, and was awarded fellowship of the Academy of Social Sciences in 2016.
Barry's plenary will take place on Friday 13th April
Living to tell the tale: a history of language testing
Many years later, as he faced retirement, the candidate was to remember that distant afternoon when his teacher took him to discover the test.

Not quite Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but it is most likely we all remember when we were first introduced to the world of the test. For the first time we were measured, judged and labelled. This experience left some elated, others scarred, while the lucky ones didn’t really care too much. After all, it was just a test. A part of our education. Unavoidable.

But how did it come about that testing became such an integral part of education systems in the first place? And why are there such radically different approaches and attitudes to testing across the world?

This talk tells the story of the test. From its first appearance in China about 2,250 years ago to the industry it has developed into over the past century. Originally devised to identify individuals with the ability to govern the emerging Han Empire, the Chinese Imperial Examinations would evolve from the Sui Dynasty (605) into a formal, standardised system with many of the attributes we currently value in our tests. By the middle of the 19th century, Europe had begun to take note of the need for competitive examinations for military, educational and administrative posts, and in the early 20th century, the scene was set for the emergence of testing as a major industry. The different philosophies of learning and testing that emerged in the USA and Europe at the time were to leave an indelible mark on how testing is practiced to this day. Since these different philosophies also impact on how we perceive tests, I hope my story will encourage you to reflect on your experiences and re-evaluate the way you approach tests in your working life.

An interview with Barry O'Sullivan

What got you interested in the field of testing?
My interest in language testing came about when I was doing my MA TEFL at the University in Reading in the early 1990s. Actually, it was a bit of an accident. In my dissertation, I was interested in analyzing the way in which language learners changed their language depending on their interlocutor – a discourse analysis project. Having struggled to collect any decent data, I confessed to my supervisor, Cyril Weir, that I was struggling. “I’m not surprised,” he said “it’s a terrible xx idea!” Shocked into action I replied “it’s not that terrible, what if it happened in one of your tests? The test taker’s score could be affected.” Apparently I’d hit on an interesting idea as we went straight to Don Porter who was VERY interested – so much so that this became my MA dissertation topic and later my PhD thesis topic, plus various talks and publications. A tester is born…

What about this topic inspires you?
I should start by admitting that I have the attention span of a gnat, so any kind of repetitive work drives me even more insane than I already am. Testing projects are fantastic as the context of development and delivery are always different, so every time I start a new project it feels like I’m starting all over again and that I’m learning all the time. Brilliant!

Do you have a favourite motto, saying or quotation you can share with us?
No Problem.
That’s it! The most important attribute for a tester to have when embarking on a new project, often with new people in a new context is the ability to generate a feeling of strength and competence in the team. Even when an issue arises that seems like a real killer, just say “No Problem” then figure out how to deal with it. Fast.
On the other side of the coin, there’s a quote from Douglas Adams (the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy):
The best kind of problem to have?

As our audience is so international, could you mention some of the countries you have lived and/or worked in?
I started teaching in a secondary school in Dublin on September 2nd 1977. After that I worked in Arequipa, Peru and then Okayama, Japan. By then it was 1998 and I found myself temporarily in Reading to finish my PhD. That turned into a full time job at the University of Reading so my temporary stay has extended to the present day and I still live there.
As for other countries, I’m currently working on projects in China, Japan, Spain, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Columbia and have enjoyed working with colleagues in Europe (the Baltic and Nordic states, Spain, Italy, Ireland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland), Africa (Egypt, Rwanda), South Asia (India), East Asia (Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong), the Americas (Mexico, Chile). I keep a list, which has long passed 50 countries, so these are just some of the highlights – apologies if I’ve left your country out.

What is your favourite thing to do outside ELT?
A really tough question.

a) I love rugby and rarely miss an Ireland game. I also follow London Irish and am a member of my local club in Reading.
b) I’ve been a Manchester United fan since I was eight. Say no more.
c) I love cooking. Anything but especially food from some of the amazing places I’ve worked and lived.
d) I read lots. Japanese, Irish, South American. Anything really. My favourite writer is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, though my brother Mark is pretty good as well!

You see, ask a tester a straight question and get a four option multiple choice response!

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