Is language proficiency measurable?

For the past few years, ESL teachers have been pushed to focus their efforts on helping their students achieve ‘measurable objectives.’ Am I the only person who finds this a strange idea? Measuring something is a matter of determining how much of something there is. To measure, we need a unit of measurement: inches and feet, centimeters and meters, pounds and ounces, grams and kilograms. By agreeing on standardized units of measurement, we can determine, objectively, the quantity of something.

Could we use this approach to evaluate a work of art or a piece of music? What would Van Gogh’s Starry Night or Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik measure? What unit of measurement would you use? Impossible, because we are not dealing with quantity (the amount of paint or size of canvas, or the number of notes) but with quality. There is no unit of measurement for quality.

When we want to assess and evaluate language are we dealing with something more like a distance or weight, or like a work of art? Is it the quantity of language or the quality of language we want to know about?

If you believe it is quantity, then you might say we can ‘measure’ the number of words a student has learned, or the number of grammar points. These don’t work as units of measurement, though, because defining exactly what is meant by ‘learning a word’ is complicated, as language teachers know. A student may be able to say it but not spell it, may use it but in an inappropriate context, may not recognize it when written down but may hear it in another person’s speech, may forget it on one occasion but recall it on another.

The psychometric testing tradition has given us tests which appear to measure learners’ language ability by assigning a score and thus appear to be objective. Classroom assessments by teachers are often regarded as a subjective second-best.

We should move away from the notion that language proficiency is measurable, and that test scores give us an ‘objective measure’ of a learner’s ability.  Language should be evaluated qualitatively, by people, using rich description rather than fantasy units of measurement that give the false impression of objectivity.