But the multiple-choice format rarely reflected a student's actual ability. On the one hand you had the weak student who, by a massive fluke, scored 15 out of 20 and had to be predicted a high grade; on the other, you had the keen grafter who, because the tasks were invariably pointless and incomprehensible, got an embarrassingly low mark.
Why all this dwelling on the past? Well, there are many language teachers who are content with the current "English question" GCSE testing format and who would prefer to have it left in peace. Almost immediately the format was introduced there was a marked increase in numbers taking languages on to GCSE and a transformation in attitudes to exam preparation among previously reluctant students. But just as we've settled into a fully-understood routine (such as our European colleagues have enjoyed for decades), "they" have resolved to change it all (again).
The "English question" format works well because it accurately reflects reality for the vast majority of candidates: it is likely that they will travel to France and will need to come to terms with everyday signs, notices, leaflets, announcements, things that people say to them, etc. They will want to know what these things mean. They will want to interpret them and act on them; they will need practice in doing these intensely practical, totally authentic and useful things. The joy of working in this way is that students understand the point of these activities. Preparation for the exam (learning vocabulary, practising with similar materials, working in self-service resource centres, etc) seems worthwhile.
But the mania for "target language" teaching threatens to sweep away much that is good in current practice. Hardly any of its proponents are practising classroom teachers, but they claim that having English in GCSE questions will have a "backwash" effect and pollute the entire system with English.
This is plain nonsense. All the professionals I know use the target language in all their teaching and ask their students to do so too. It doesn't, however, make them question the wisdom of using, in public exams, an authentic method of questioning which works. The only time it would potentially poison the atmosphere would be in the few months leading up to the exams; but the very nature of practising listening and reading is that students work on their own, so the lessons needn't be affected at all.
Has the student understood? Yes or no? The exam in its current format tells us, but target language fetishists think they can answer any suggestions that they might have got it wrong. They claim that there are "Ways To Do It!" Press them on exactly what those ways are and the replies are depressingly predictable: a catalogue of ticking boxes out of a series of pictures; putting "True or False"; selecting from various alternative answers, etc. (See Target Language Questioning, a document from the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority currently being used by exam boards as a blueprint for 1998.) What these tasks have in common is that they are totally devoid of authenticity and have been created solely as exam exercises.
"Mixed task assessment!" I hear the targeters cry. Oh yes? Do we really want to go back to the days when students had understood something but got no credit because they failed to express the answer correctly? That would make a nonsense of the basic pillars of the national curriculum, the four attainment targets.
For the past few years, teaching even low ability students to GCSE has been a pleasure. Now, for no coherent reason, we're changing again. No teachers I know want it, but they have got used to accepting anything that's thrown at them. They are too tired, too intimidated, too used to being led "from the top". But then again, why worry? In a year or so they'll change it all again.
Gary Shawford is a teacher in Worcester