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A long way from Tipperary ...

Melanie Butler talks to Irish testing guru Barry O'Sullivan about the phenomenal popularity of his brainchild Aptis, the new British Council business-to-business exam

Unusually for the world of EFL, Barry O’Sullivan’s career as a tester predates his time as a teacher.

‘I was teaching solid state geometry,’ the Irishman tells me over lunch, ‘when the government announced they were going to move the exam up to an honours level. I spent all summer figuring out what to do.’ By September Barry, who had started out as an apprentice fitter before retraining to teach engineering, had worked out the answer. That year all his students at this college in the Irish town of Tipperary got A grades in the new exam.

‘They all got As the next year too, so the chief inspector turned up and said to me, “I’m either going to have to fire you or hire you.” So he hired me.’

Now senior adviser on English language assessment to the British Council, Professor O’Sullivan is the mastermind behind Aptis, the new British Council exam. Designed for organisations and institutions wanting to benchmark the language levels of their staff or students, the test is sold ‘business to business’ and can be adapted for specific professional fields; Aptis for teachers, for example, is already available. In China, Barry tells me delightedly, it already has its own Chinese name, which roughly translates as the broad exam.

The idea for Aptis grew out of a placement test he wrote for the British Council with his old mas ters supervisor, Professor Cyril Weir. It was Cyril who lured Barry back into testing when, having left Ireland to travel with his girlfriend – now wife – he found himself teaching English at university in Japan and signed up for a masters at the University of Reading.

‘I was trying to write a thesis on discourse analysis but I just couldn’t get enough data. So I asked Cyril, how would you test for that? And he said, “That’s a really interesting question.”’ The two worked together for years, with Barry taking over at the Centre for Language Assessment at the University of Roehampton, where he still holds a professorial chair, from Professor Weir.

‘After we had finished the placement test, I went to the Council and said, “Why don’t we do some teacher development, train some teachers to do item writing, for example?”’ The training, which was delivered by MOOC (massive open online course), created a cadre of testers for the British Council. All the Council needed then, of course, was an exam for their new tester teachers to use their skills on. And Barry knew exactly the kind of exam they needed.

‘The idea came to me from computer games. Computer games aren’t written as linear stories, they are designed in blocks. Different players make different choices which take them to a different block. My idea was to have a test written in blocks, so it could be tailored to the needs of different organisations, different professions.’

All the exams feature a core grammar and vocabulary component, but it is up to the client organisation which of the four skills are tested, and what specific areas of English they want to test. Available as either a computer-based or paper-andpen exam – the spoken English component can be taken by phone – it is the ultimate flexible exam. And the take-up has been phenomenal.

‘We sold nearly four times as many exams in the first year than we had predicted.’

This could have been be a problem with a test that needs to be marked in 48 hours and with two of the productive skills, writing and speaking, human marked by trained testers.

Professor Sullivan is not a fan of computer-marked tests – he once failed a well-known computer-marked spoken test twice. It turns out that it tested mostly pronunciation, not content, and the computer just couldn’t cope with the soft south-east Irish lilt of a tester from Tipperary.

For Barry the solution to the need for a 48-hour marking service is simple: train more teachers from across the world to become testers. He has an army of trained markers – 50 per cent native speakers, 50 per cent nonnatives – fanned out across the globe. ‘We’ve just trained some in New Zealand. We’re looking at Europe now, perhaps Greece. We need to be able to mark 24 hours a day.’

Barry is in charge of every single detail. It is rare, I point out, for a tester to mastermind a project from concept to implementation, let alone to launch it into new territories at the head of an army of teachers-turned-testers.

‘It is rare,’ he agrees with a smile. ‘Mostly we testers spend our lives looking at the tiny details, focused in on things like the writing of individual items.’ He couldn’t have done it, he concedes, if the British Council hadn’t given him the support, the money and, above all, some of its best people. ‘I have the best.’ The tester from Tiperrary smiles. ‘The very best. I couldn’t have done it without them.’