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Plan Portugal: testing the nation’s kids



Melanie Butler asks Cambridge English assistant director of operations Cris Betts about working with the Portuguese government on a ground-breaking national testing programme

How did you personally first get involved with the IAVE project, the massive Portuguese government initiative to test the English level of every grade 9 student in the country using Cambridge English exams?

I’ve been involved with the project since the beginning, so it’s been great to see it grow from an initial concept to the point where we delivered around 110,000 tests in a single day at more than 1,300 schools across mainland Portugal, Madeira and the Azores. One of the things that really helped is that since the initiation of the project we’ve been working directly with the president of the Instituto de Avaliação Educacional Helder Sousa and his professional team at IAVE. This made it possible to deliver the project to a really high standard.

The project started in 2012. Apart from delivering the examinations what else was Cambridge English involved in?

The great thing about the project is that we are working with assessment specialists at IAVE, which is part of the ministry of education, so we’re very much on the same page. As well as setting and marking the tests, we provided training for over a thousand teachers who were involved in the marking, and we worked very closely with IAVE to ensure that the test arrangements met their requirements as well as ours.

How was such a giant project funded?

The Portuguese government came up with an imaginative and far-sighted funding solution which meant that tests were made available at no cost to the government or to schools, and with a small payment by parents if they wanted to purchase the certificate gained by their son or daughter. This was possible thanks to sponsorship from four leading companies. The bank BPI, healthcare workflow solution provider Connexall, information technology specialist Novabase and the publisher Porto Editora all provided the sponsorship.

From a personal perspective what was the most challenging aspect of the project and what the most rewarding?

Making sure that all the systems and infrastructure were in place was a huge challenge. This was a big task, but we got there thanks to large amounts of behind-the-scenes work from Cambridge English and IAVE. The most rewarding parts were working with the Portuguese teachers involved in the project, who I found to be really dedicated, professional and highly competent. But the main satisfaction comes from being part of a project which is aimed at transforming the experience and skills set of such a large group of people, regardless of their economic situation.

The results came out this July – what were the most significant findings and how will they influence the future of English language teaching in Portugal?

Results showed an increase in proficiency levels since the European Survey of Language Competences which was carried out in 2011. Perhaps the most significant finding was that speaking was the weakest skill in English overall and there were also clear regional differences in levels of achievement, with the urban coastal regions performing most strongly. During the press conference in July it was great to hear Nuno Crato, the minister for education and science, make a major commitment to improving English language teaching in the future. Reflecting on the results, it’s fair to say that the Cambridge English: Key for Schools examination was an appropriate exam for the first phase of this important project. Next year they’ll be using Cambridge English: Preliminary for Schools. Setting a more ambitious target should help to drive up standards.

What lessons can other governments learn from this project?

Using private-sector sponsorship to fund wide-ranging and profound changes through improvements in learning and teaching provides an excellent model for other countries. The model we have developed with the Portuguese ministry of education is an effective way of making very high-quality language assessment and improved professional development for teachers available to an entire school year. This means that improved standards of English are available to everyone – not just those who can choose to invest in private lessons.

What lessons can Cambridge English learn from such a project?

Working with governments and ministries is increasingly a central part of our activities. Offering internationally recognised standardised tests in a state-school context obviously brings its own challenges and we have appreciated working with the ministry in Portugal. We have learned many lessons in the first year of the project and look forward to making sure that test delivery is even smoother next year.

If you had a chance to do it all again what is the one thing you would change and why?

I’d definitely brush up on my Portuguese! It’s been a fantastic experience and the more I learn about the country, the more I’m enjoying it.