What does negative washback looks like?

Let’s look at an example of negative washback from a test. 

Michiko is a Japanese teacher in a high school world language program. In recent years, she has based her instruction on a textbook for Japanese world language teachers, and uses materials and examples from the same textbook for assessing students. Michiko likes the textbook a lot – it’s age-appropriate, contains engaging and relevant examples, and she feels confident in selecting and modifying materials from it for instructional and assessment purposes. At the end of each semester, she adapts a paired dialogue exercise from the textbook as a summative test to measure student achievement.

However, Michiko has noticed recently that students spend a much of their time in class and during group work practicing dialogues, and less time speaking spontaneously. Michiko’s students know about the final from the beginning of the semester, and she is concerned that preparation for the summative assessment is coming at the cost of unrehearsed speech. 

Michiko is seeing an example of negative washback in her class. She wants her students to be able to communicate effectively in a variety of situations by the end of the course, and rehearsing dialogues may prevent her students from meeting this objective. 

One way to avoid negative washback is through instructional planning that links teaching and testing. By selecting an assessment that reflects your instructional and program goals, you can more closely align testing with instruction. The principles of backward design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) provide a helpful model for integrating teaching and testing. In Michiko’s case, the objective of students being able to speak freely in different contexts is planned first, along with how that will be assessed. Then, instruction is designed to lead to that outcome.