What you should know about language placement tests

Most intensive English programs offer a placement test or a set of procedures to try and ensure that students are receiving instruction at an appropriate level. Minimally, a multiple-choice test is offered at the school on the first day,  or online. Other procedures typically include an interview and a written assignment that are assessed by the program’s teachers.

If your program is introducing, reviewing, or revising placement procedures, here are some important considerations.

Placement tests are not tied to your program’s objectives
If a program uses a commercially available test such as the Oxford Placement Test or the Michigan English Placement Test, the test may give some indication of students’ overall proficiency, but will not tell you which of your program’s learning objectives students have achieved. Even if you include a writing assignment based on a prompt or an interview, these procedures will not cover the range of learning objectives for your program. The results of placement tests are, therefore, highly inferential. They may gain face validity if used over a long period of time, if program staff can say, “Students with x score typically do well in y level,” but they do not tell which level is the correct one based on achievement of your program’s objectives.

Placement tests are not diagnostic
Because placement tests generally yield limited data about students’ proficiency, they they can be used to broadly categorize students into your program’s levels, but they won’t tell you much about each student’s ability on the four skills in a variety of discourse settings. This is why you sometimes find very quiet and hesitant students in a class with fast talkers, which can lead to student frustration – they placed at the same overall level but their skills vary. To serve students effectively, schools need to build in additional procedures (such as a needs analysis or separating skill classes by level) to ensure that students’ individual needs are understood and can be addressed.

Placement tests don’t tell you a student’s level
This may seem counter-intuitive, but in fact there are no ‘levels’ in language learning. Language proficiency improves on a continuum. Levels are imposed by programs as a way to group students (and each program has its own system of levels and grouping). ‘Level’ for a language program means its curricular level – what is specified to be taught to (and presumably learned by) a categorized group of students. Placement is the process of deciding which level a student should be placed in – but it doesn’t tell you ‘the student’s level.’

Placement procedures rarely ask the student’s opinion
Some students are ambitious and want to be challenged. Others want to spend time reviewing and consolidating what they know. Some students lack confidence and want time and space in the classroom to get comfortable with themselves as language learners in an English-only environment. Students’ own learning preferences are not usually taken into account in placement procedures; they are told what level they will be placed in and that this is the right level for them ‘based on the placement test,’ which, as I’ve tried to show above, is may be limited in its effectiveness. Placement procedures should take students’ preferences into account.

The only relevant information you need is…
‘what is the level of our program at which this student is likely to thrive and make the best progress?’ All other considerations are secondary.

So, if you are introducing, reviewing, or revising your placement testing procedures, consider the following

1. Improve the validity of your procedures by linking them directly to your program’s learning objectives.

2. Take proficiency on individual skills into account when placing students.

3. Avoid concluding that a student must be in a particular level because of the placement result – build in procedures for flexibility.

4. Ask students about their preferred level of challenge – if your program is ‘student-centered,’ you should be doing this anyway.

5. Finally, if a student is unhappy with his or her placement, be willing to make a change – understand that the placement test gave you limited information and that adult students have valid opinions about what works best for them.