Language Tests

There are two kinds of language tests. One measures how well a student is doing in a particular class. This is called an ACHIEVEMENT test. Achievement tests reflect a student's ability and willingness to learn and show, on a percentage basis, how much of the training and materials presented in a particular class were absorbed. A score of 90% on an achievement test would indicate that the student had understood and carefully covered about 90% of what was presented in a particular class. A score of 40% would indicate that the student had only accomplished 40% of the class goals.

Another type of test measures overall language proficiency and is called a PROFICIENCY test. This is a test that globally measures how much of a language the student has acquired over a period of time from ALL sources. It may represent a few months of study or years of study and use of the language. Think of a proficiency test as showing the "tip of an iceberg." A scientist can measure the tip of an iceberg and calculate, with a great deal of accuracy, how much ice is UNDER the water. A language proficiency test looks at a carefully selected group of language items and the results determine how much of the whole language is probably understood. The score is not a "percentage" of anything. It is a number that provides useful information based on consistent results.

An achievement test can be failed. Proficiency test scores are used to place students in the correct language course or to determine readiness for certain types of studies and jobs where the target language is used. If a student does not accomplish all of the goals in a particular course, the result will be a low achievement score and that may represent a "failure." A 40 on an achievement test may be a failing score. A 40 on a valid proficiency test may indicate a fairly good deal of language understanding, because we are measuring the WHOLE language rather than the results of classroom instruction. Language acquisition is a long-term and never-ending challenge. The fact that a student made a 98% achievement test score in Professor Smith's French class, does NOT tell us how much French the student knows. It tells us that the student learned almost all that Professor Smith taught. If Professor Smith was teaching beginning French, this does NOT mean that the student would do well on a proficiency test. It simply means that the student worked hard and accomplished specific elementary goals. If a student made a 98 on a proficiency test, it would mean that this student really knows the target language and is more than ready to attend a university where that language is the medium of instruction or take a job requiring a high level of English comprehension.

Achievement tests are common and are frequently designed by teachers or schools to measure how their students are doing in a particular course. Proficiency tests are not common and represent years of work, research and trials before they can be valid and useful. Normally they are tried on hundreds of language learners at known levels and are edited, tried and re-edited before they can be released for use.

The American Language Course Proficiency Test (ALCPT) is the natural heir to the English Comprehension Level (ECL) test, which has been in official use by the Defense Language Institute English Language Center for decades, to determine the readiness of allied and friendly international military personnel to enter certain types of training. The ALCPT is an expired official ECL test, that has remained secure, for non-official (U.S. Government) score testing. Scores represent certain language realities for each person who takes the test. This test is also commonly and effectively used for placement of non-native speakers of English in appropriate class levels. Some examples of how this test has been used include samples of some of the required score levels: Scores of 60-65 have been used by the U.S. military to select persons for certain basic courses taught in English, such as sheet metal workers, mechanics and construction equipment operators. This score indicates a probable vocabulary of 3,000 words and a reading grade level of 5.5. A score of 70 might include persons being trained as medical service technicians, supply specialists or in basic electronics. The vocabulary here is around 4,000 words and the reading grade level is 7.4. A score of 80 is adequate for professional military education, undergraduate flying courses and certain hazardous courses. A score of 85 is adequate for some advanced flying courses. A score of 90 is adequate for military staff colleges, which are quite comparable to required American university TOEFL scores of around 550. Scores below 24 are not considered valid. Students at this level should be placed in beginning English classes.

The ALCPT is a listening and reading test that measures vocabulary, structure, listening ability and many other factors that are necessary to understand English. Good student placement should be based on comprehension ability and this test is "tried and true." The ALCPT is not suitable for non-literate students and will normally reflect speaking ability only for students who have studied English in a balanced (listening, speaking, reading and writing) language program.

Ted Klein