Monday, January 30, 2006


The CEPA: A general overview

A talk by Paul Jaquith (UGRU Assessment Co-ordinator) and Subha K. Al Shamisi (Head of National Admissions and Placement Office) in Al Multaqa Auditorium Thursday 29th September 2005

With the goal of creating an accurate measure of the language ability of students across the government educational institutions of the UAE, the CEPA testing system, which has only been running for just four years, appears to be fulfilling its original function. That was the conclusion reached by both Paul Jaquith and Subha K. Shamisi this morning in a well attended talk given in the University Social Club’s Al Multaqa Building.

Beginning with the CEPA’s recent history; the whys and the whens as he put it, Mr. Jaquith described CEPA as ‘an entire testing system’, which includes an examination paper, a scoring procedure – rigorously maintained to ensure absolute fairness in scoring, as well as a means of giving hopeful students (15, 000 took the test last year) the chance to enter higher education in the country’s higher institutions: UAE University, Zayed University and the Higher Colleges of Technology, all of which have English as their medium of instruction.

Ms. Subha Al Shamisi later reiterated the importance of students learning English in order to participate in their university education, and their ability to communicate their thoughts, ideas, and aspirations through English throughout their lives.

Going on to inform the audience – mainly teachers and supervisors from schools in the UAE, as well as representatives from the higher institutions mentioned, Mr. Jaquith went into some depth about both the form of the test and its content.

With sections on Grammar, Vocabulary, Reading and Writing, he stated that the CEPA Test covers any and all categories of grammatical construction found in any reputable grammar textbook, with verb tenses being weighted heavily in particular.

The vocabulary used and tested is taken from the second thousand most frequently used words in general speech, as well as being supplemented by an academic word list, thereby attaching great importance to one of our main roles as educators at tertiary levels: helping our students submit work of standards acceptable worldwide.

Reading accounts for a further 30 questions in the CEPA test, and is typically taken from texts that students are expected to be able to comprehend at this level.

The test’s Writing Section accounts for 30 minutes of test time, although no stoppages are made in the test, unlike those in IELTS and TOEFL. Unfortunately, according to Mr. Jaquith, coming last on the paper as it does, the written component of the test generally suffers as students ‘run out of time’ near the end of a busy time for them in the examination.

Dealing with just such occurrences, both Mr. Jaquith and later Subha K. Shamisi, urged teachers in schools with students preparing for the CEPA test to go through certain valuable strategies when taking examinations in English.

As experienced test takers ourselves in our days as students at university, Mr. Jaquith reminded all of us of the value to students to know how to budget their time – allotting specific amounts of time to specific tasks and sections; to not falling behind in tests – an idea that relates to the last point; to not being tempted to guess answers in multiple choice type questions in a random fashion; to answering all the questions; to doing the whole test honestly, and finally, the importance of not cheating.

Picking up several of these points separately, Mr. Jaquith urged teachers not to teach to the test, as it were, but rather to teach the curriculum – the whole of it rather than a sort of second guessing of what is likely to come up on the next test based on a sort of analysis of previous ones.

Similarly, avoiding any kind of ‘finessing of the testing system’, by which he meant the possibility of defining patterns of answers in the test, is also of paramount importance. It generally amazes teachers that such a lot of energy is used up in such worthless pursuits when the whole testing procedure is avowedly scrutinized both notionally and statistically for any such patterning – that students should be made fully aware of the fact that such patterning is wholly absent in the CEPA testing system.

Above all, methodologies are employed to ensure fairness and lack of bias, intentional or otherwise, and that teachers’ scoring of the Writing Section, for example, go through various computer programmes to iron out any anomalies or inconsistencies in either undue severity of scoring or lenience by teachers marking papers.

As for the administration of the test, papers are scanned by computer and marked on specially prepared databases to ensure that every mark is allocated to the correct paper for the correct student – nothing is left to chance.

Subha K. Al Shamisi spoke of the importance of making students aware of the value to them of the CEPA test, both for their forthcoming life as students at university, as well as for their life after their formal education; when communicating well and fluently in English will enhance their career opportunities and in so doing, will serve the nation well after its outlay in their education.

Ms. Al Shamisi concluded her talk by informing teachers in schools in which preparations for CEPA are ongoing, that computer based help is on its way to assist in giving students the practice they need in getting used to the format of the test, for example, as well as things like budgeting their time whilst they are taking it. Similarly, videos are being made available to help students avoid under-performing in tests, which quickly and accurately discriminate between abilities in using English, and which correlate closely with how students perform once they are enrolled and studying at university.

The fact that the CEPA testing scheme currently underway in the UAE does correlate closely with other measures of ability and does in fact accurately and reliably predict students’ performance in their studies through the medium of English means that CEPA is fulfilling its function in education in the country; that in working together to promote teaching and learning, the CEPA provides educators with year after year consistency in both means and ends of assessing ability of students wishing to enter higher education in the UAE.

Robert L Fielding


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