Because I know that you have many other things to do, I´m going to start with the conclusions. Then if you have time and want to find out the details, the arguments follow.
Overall: Don’t forget to enjoy learning English. Official titles can be a necessity and/or a motivation, but they are only a piece of paper.
Learning English can be so much more.
My advice to students and parents (and friends if they ask)
– Before spending a lot of money on exam fees, ask yourself: “Do I need the official title? What for?” If you can find a convincing answer, go ahead!
– It´s pointless doing official exams from a young age because they tend to corrode curiosity and enthusiasm for learning, replacing them with obsession with marks. Parents should not succumb to pressure from other parents – let the kids develop a love of learning before labelling them with numbers!!
– Don’t confuse passing an exam with a “real world” English level. A B2 certificate does not grant you automatic confidence using English in authentic street-level conversations, or understanding social norms such as politeness, that go far beyond linguistic capability.
– Exams can provide motivation to learn English. However, also set “real world” goals e.g. getting through a trip to London speaking only English, finishing a novel in English, or understanding an English-language film without reading the subtitles.
What are the main arguments for and against taking exams?
This time of year, students (or their parents) have to decide whether to sign up to the summer round of external exams (Cambridge or Trinity) to try to crown the academic year with an official title.
Although exams have always been seen as an integral part of learning, I don´t believe the two complement each other in many cases. In fact, within my global teaching association IATEFL, there has been a growing debate on whether these external exams help or hinder the learning of English on the whole, and interesting discussions on their ´washback´ (effects) on individuals and society.
1. Measuring progress is an important part of learning.
2. Exams provide a motivation to study, and a clear direction when goal-setting.
3. Independent assessment is unbiased and unaffected by teacher-student or teacher-parent relationships.
4. Having to provide hard proof of level through an official title decreases the chances of cronyism and nepotism when hiring for jobs.
1. The expense. Unfortunately, it’s often unemployed students who most need a title to boost their CVs, not those with a disposable income (a B2 exam costs nearly 200 euros).
2. Provoking anxiety (in several very extreme cases in Asia, IATEFL colleagues have reported exam stress as a contributing factor to student suicides).
3. Encouraging a complete focus on marks, not enjoyment or studying more practical topics.
4. Learning by memorisation. Little interest in developing critical independent thinking or investigation skills.
5. Organisations using English level as a roadblock to academic or professional advancement e.g. needing a B1 level to get one’s degree certificate at many Spanish universities, although the degree has nothing to do with English.
So what? Who is really suffering from an exam-focused culture?
For many adults, although seldom described as enjoyable, exams are a necessary evil to gain another qualification or get to another level professionally or academically.
However, in my opinion, putting children and young teenagers through the stress of preparing and taking external exams has no pedagogical or developmental benefit, and when consulted by parents, I recommend not taking any official exam until 15 or 16 years old.
In fact, particularly regarding points 2, 3 and 4 in the Cons column above, I see them as a negative educational experience for these young people, which destroys the development of more important skills and values at this stage of their education. To quote TEFL expert Richard Smith:
´The utilitarian goal of ´proficiency´ comes to predominate at the expense of other…educational values, for example, intercultural understanding, language learner autonomy and literary appreciation´ (Smith, R., ELT Journal/IATEFL Debate: Language testing does more harm than good, IATEFL 2015 Manchester Conference Selections, IATEFL, 2016, p.192).