When I started out as an EFL teacher back in the 1960s things were very different from now. The University of Cambridge (UCLES as it then was) was running a three-tier system of English language exams for overseas students: the ‘Lower Certificate in English’, introduced in 1939 (and renamed ‘First Certificate’ in 1976); the ‘Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE) introduced in 1913 (and often referred to at the time as ‘the Higher’); and a third, absurdly high level exam way above CPE called the ‘Diploma of English Studies’ (DES), introduced I think in 1945. During my early teaching years I prepared candidates for all three of these and was a listening and oral examiner for the Lower and CPE. The format was different, more different than you could probably imagine, but that’s not my topic for today.
In those pre-CEFR days it was hard to assess the level of an exam, but the CPE then was to my mind much ‘harder’ than it is today. Certainly none the exams in the forms they then existed were what we would want to call communicative. The CPE included translation and both literary criticism and ‘Literature’, and was not unlike English language A-level of the day in some respects. The DES was a very ‘advanced’ exam indeed, one which went way beyond this and then further into contrastive cultural studies, etc. The candidature for DES was always small and in 1996 it was ‘quietly removed’. I have a few friends around still who achieved DES level, including one or two I helped prepare; but much of the ‘preparation’ was in fact carried out by the candidates themselves.
In the 1980s and 1990s the levels stabilised and the ‘main suite’ of exams slowly emerged until we reached the set of exams we know now.
That was then and now is now. A rather damning and anonymous comment (“A review of Local Examinations Syndicate – University of Cambridge”) was made on Wednesday 4th of January 2006 (see here for source).
UCLES administered until 1996 the Diploma of English Studies, an examination in English Literature and background studies at post-Proficiency level. Its discontinuation was due to the low number of entries of candidates; UCLES was busy running the far more popular -and profitable- FCE and CPE exams and could see no (financial) viability in the Diploma. Moreover, the introduction of new exams, such as KET and PET would mean attracting more and more test takers and the accrual of greater commercial gain, so why bother about literature and higher-level exams at all? One could argue that there was nothing wrong with their decision to discontinue it; still, an examining body which respects its audience should, as well as creating new exams, cater for the needs of successful candidates in terms of maintaining recognition even of discontinued qualifications. In short, UCLES should have done two things: It should have continued to make reference, in the Regulations, to the Diploma (as an advanced exam at post-Proficiency level) and, secondly, it should have tried to have it included in NQF (national qualifications framework) at, say, level 5 (the same level as DELTA). This way, Diploma holders would not have been left dissatisfied.
So, Mammon had a voice although it was missed by a few in its passing. Have we seen a dumbing down of these English language exams over the years? Well, probably yes and no, apples and oranges; I have no dog in this fight.
When CPE (the ‘middle level’ of the Lower-CPE-DES exams) started, students were taking 12 hours of papers, with translations, literature and essays on such topics as ‘The effect of political movements upon nineteenth century literature in England’, ‘English Pre-Raphaelitism’, ‘Elizabethan travel and discovery’ and ‘The development of local self-government’, with no guidance as to how to approach these topics. They required strong cognitive and intellectual skills and a good knowledge of language, literature and culture which is not expected today, and in fact is often actively resisted by exam writers. I’m not sure there’s a place today in EFL for any of that.
Today’s exams are far more ‘authentic’ and student-oriented, and some would say considerably ‘easier’ in terms of the language they test. They are also far less Anglocentric and undoubtedly more accessible to today’s students than the post-WW2 versions would be, and that has to be a good thing.