Advancing Fairness and Justice in Language Testing: Reflecting on Tim McNamara's Scholarship

Date: Tuesday, July 2, 2024, 6 pm to 7 pm

Knowledge and Power: Shaping Policy Action from Research


Over many decades of close work with Tim (Lo Bianco, 2019) I had innumerable discussions with him about how research could impact more closely on public policy determinations. Some of these discussions were transactional, such as how a specific research project he was engaged in, or a group of individuals whose language problems he was researching, could be supported in decision making within bureaucracies.  Others looked at the intellectual presuppositions of the dynamic in which scholarly knowledge and political power come to interact with each other. Over time we came to delineate limits and problems associated with the aspiration of linking scholarly activity with practical action and identified important justifications for distance as well as engagement. I will describe these interactions as a ‘policy conversations’, and how they formed a kind of preparation for the culture of engagement between knowledge and power around dynamics of tensions and difficulties in epistemic orientation, purpose, timeframes and emotional investment between scholars and officials.


Portrait of Dr Joseph Lo Bianco

Joseph Lo Bianco,
University of Melbourne

The Tension Between Conformity and Creativity in English-as-a-Lingua-Franca Communication


The range of Tim McNamara’s research encompassed issues relating both to conformity and creativity. His work on language testing necessarily has to do with the measurement of competence, with what normalized conventions of usage it is possible or appropriate for learners to conform to as a measurement of competence in a language. But he also wrote insightfully about the necessary non-conformist uses of language in the creative realization of individual identity. Such uses, which of course would normally be negatively assessed in tests of (English) language competence, make clear that language users have the intrinsic capability of exploiting language as a communicative resource beyond the confines of communal convention. Such a capability is also what is abundantly evident in the use of English as a lingua franca. In our conversations with Tim, in correspondence and particularly when he was guest professor in Vienna, we argued that this implied a crucial distinction between justice as an institutionalized measure of conformity to convention, and fairness as a recognition of capability. We further discussed whether and to what extent the institutional requirement for reliable competence measurement was inherently unfair in that it denied recognition to how ‘English’ is capably and resourcefully used as a global means of lingua franca communication.


Portrait of Barbara Seidlhofer

Barbara Seidlhofer,
University of Vienna

Portrait of Henry Widdowson

Henry Widdowson,
University of Vienna

Interrogating the Social and Political Values Underlying Language Testing Practices


A consistent theme of Tim’s scholarship was his recognition and interrogation of the social and political values underlying language testing practices, particularly the way these values are manifest in test constructs and supported by the technical, measurement-related qualities of testing instruments. This theme encompasses an understanding of a complex and contested relationship between measurement fairness (absence of bias), and the fairness-as-justice questions associated with test constructs and uses. In this presentation, we begin by reporting on two recent projects inspired by this theme of Tim’s work.  The first focuses on a revised version of the Australian citizenship test, and considers the fairness implications of test design and use in reference to concerns raised about an earlier version of the test by McNamara and Ryan (2011). The second features a national project in China, aimed to investigate the practices of English test providers and survey test stakeholders’ perceptions, views, and attitudes towards English language testing. We conclude by reflecting on Tim’s theorizing of fairness and justice in language testing, particularly his efforts to bring a poststructuralist perspective to bear on questions of social values, constructs, and consequences, the mutually constituting, entangled nature of measurement-ideology this perspective implies, and its implications in light of recent calls for a renewed criticality in language testing (e.g. Randall et al., 2024) and in applied linguistics more generally (e.g. Kubota, 2022; Pennycook, 2022).

Kubota, R. (2022). Decolonizing second language writing: Possibilities and challenges. Journal of Second Language Writing, 58, 100946.
McNamara, T., & Ryan, K. (2011). Fairness versus justice in language testing: The place of English literacy in the Australian Citizenship Test. Language Assessment Quarterly, 8(2), 161-178.
Pennycook, A. (2022). Critical applied linguistics in the 2020s, Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, 19:1, 1-21.
Randall, J., Poe, M., Slomp, D. & Oliveri, M. (2024). Our validity looks like justice. Does yours? Language Testing, 41(1), 203-219.


Portrait of Kellie Frost

Kellie Frost,
University of Melbourne

Portrait of Ute Knoch

Ute Knoch,
University of Melbourne

Portrait of Susy Macqueen

Susy Macqueen,
Australian National University

Portrait of Jason Fan

Jason Fan,
University of Melbourne

Power and Justice in Language Testing Embedded in ‘The Meaning of Life’


The issue of the power of tests - the uses of tests and their impact on learning, teaching and future lives of test takers - was always very central in the continuous conversations that Tim and I had over the course of his life. It was also an integral part of a longer list of items on our agendas, the last of which we never really reached entitled ‘the meaning of life’. Yet, in fact, every conversation with Tim was about ‘the meaning of life’, as each conversation generated deep ideas and implications to a meaningful life.  When I first met Tim, he was mostly involved in psychometric topics. It was a surprise for him that I was interested in test uses, misuses and people who are victims of tests. After all, we testers may be responsible for it. In this paper I will track the ideas, thoughts, research, writings and impact of Tim McNamara on multiple dimensions of language tests’ uses, power, ethicality and justice. From a memorable encounter with a testing victim in a bar in the Netherlands, to our mutual work on language tests for citizenship, the influence of Derrida’s writings on Tim’s work, to broader issues addressed in his book, Language and Subjectivity (2019). Tim’s work was/is meaningful and critical for test takers and society at large; it will continue to be inspirational for all of us in the years to come.


Portrait of Elana Shohamy

Elana Shohamy,
Tel Aviv University

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