Saturday, 18 April 2009

Bad exam questions

We have been busy preparing students for their exams and while doing so we have been struck by some rather dubious exam questions. One of the most dubious is the following, which appeared in the May 2007 B2 exam from the University of Central Lancashire (question 45).

Millions of people are living in poverty, ___________ all the
modern technology in the world.

A. despite
B. because of
C. although
D. unless
One student insisted vehemently that the answer was B, and he wanted to show us one of his school books which apparently puts at least part of the blame for poverty on modern technology. But the answer key from Lancashire says he is wrong. Millions of people are NOT living in poverty because of modern technology; they are living in poverty despite the technology.

Is it the comma? Is that what is really being tested here? But I don't remember coming across a B2 course book that enabled students to understand the finer points concerning the use of the comma, and surely this is not an appropriate topic at B2 level, where the emphasis ought to be on competent communication and not on literary niceties.

The prize, though, for the most dubious exam question goes to one that cropped up in an apparently official preparatory course for the Greek B2 English exam. One very strange exercise began by giving candidates a definition of an oxymoron, supplemented by the example: "a deafening silence", and then asked students to look at a series of quotations to identify which of them are oxymorons. One of the quotations was the following:

If you fall and break your legs, don't come running to me.
According to the key this is an oxymoron. I fail to see anything oxymoronic about it. But that is not the issue. I am all for the Greeks organizing their own English exams, and I would even support a more "protectionist" exclusion of some of the more questionable foreign exams, but I don't think it is a good idea to ask students to spot oxymorons when they should really be given opportunities to show how well they can communicate in English.