Level Tests Versus Placement Tests

By Alex Case
“Level test” and “placement test” are often used interchangeably, but “placement test” may be a better name. This article explains why and gives practical advice regarding such testing.

The expressions “level test” and “placement test” are used by different schools for the exact same thing, namely giving students an interview, a short written test and/ or a piece of writing to do in order to work out which class to put them in. This article is to argue, however, that not only is “placement test” a better name, but that the difference in wording between “level test” and “placement test” points out most of the deficiencies in such testing as it often takes place, whatever it is called.

The previous sentence is perhaps an exaggeration, as there are plenty of students who are put into the wrong class simply because the testing system or interviewer fails to work out the actual level of the students. My own experience proves that getting that right is just the start, however. If that makes placement testing sound impossible, I hope I will also show that other factors having as much importance as level in many situations will actually sometimes make our jobs easier.

Training teachers to do level testing interviews is pretty tricky, especially as the most important thing is making sure teachers are consistent. In one school I worked in, we seemed to have the perfect solution to this as all teachers were fully trained and very experienced oral examiners for a well respected ESOL examination board. We therefore decided just to give all students that test in place of a level test. Despite being a bit of a marketing coup, the results in terms of putting students in the right class were, in my opinion, a disaster.

Some of the causes for standardisation of testing having a negative rather than positive effect were not really connected to the central argument of this piece, being more tied up with the differences between a level test and ones which give students a mark depending simply on how well they performed during the few minutes that the speaking test lasted. Things that an experienced level tester (and probably any experienced teacher) could have taken into account that using an FCE or IELTS marking scheme would make impossible, include:

  • Being sure that students haven’t really shown how they good they are, e.g. because they are nervous, didn’t understand the format of the test, or genuinely had nothing to say about the topics they were given
  • Being sure that students aren’t as high level as their performance would suggest, e.g. because they are good at tests, are particularly familiar with the test format, or find that the format of the test (e.g. simple question and answer rather than being in charge of keeping a conversation going) suited them
  • Not being allowed to ask questions that would make their level clearer because you have to stick to a particular test format or even an examiner’s script

One example of the last point that I will never forget is being completely mystified by a prospective student who had an almost British accent but also lots of basic errors and a pretty limited range of vocab and grammatical forms. The only solution I could find to my placement conundrum was to point out exactly what my problem was to the potential student, at which point she explained that she was an actress who had spent a lot of time with a voice coach and so was particularly good at mimicking accents. That narrowed down my options a lot, and she was perfectly happy in the Intermediate class I put her in, despite having better pron than most of my Proficiency class. Other shortcut questions that you don’t want to exclude from your level testing system include what level classes they have been in before, what they do in English outside class, and how much they have studied or used English before.

The idea of asking the right questions also forms the basis of what I mean by giving them a placement test rather than just a level test. It sounds obvious, but what we want to do is place students in the right class for them (and their classmates), and that doesn’t just depend on level. Other things you will need to know about to place them where they should be include:

  • Do they have lots of passive knowledge that will come out as the course progresses?
  • In general, are they likely to progress faster or slower than their classmates and so quickly be in the wrong class despite starting the term in the right one?
  • Do they want to or need to be pushed, or will that ruin their confidence or stop them concentrating on fluency?
  • Is there anything else about putting them in the level that they seem to be speaking at that would make them unhappy enough to spoil their progress, the progress of their classmates, or the atmosphere of the class?

Finding out about the first point will entail asking questions about English use outside class such as lots of reading or half-forgotten language from studies or living abroad. The second point has many different factors including: their study strategies and motivation; how much the approach used in class is likely to suit them; how much the approach in class is likely to be new to them and whether that will lead to quick progress or struggling with it; their L1; other languages they speak (for example being bilingual); general academic ability; personality; and attitudes to things like making mistakes and correction and to the English in general.

Here is a by no means exhaustive list of the kinds of questions you could ask in an interview and/ or on an application form to make sure that you are giving a placement test rather than just a level test:

  • Have you studied English before? What did you think of the course? Why?
  • What do you do in English outside class? How do you do that thing (e.g. using a dictionary, English subtitles, writing down vocab to learn later)?
  • Why do you want to study English (here)?
  • What do you think the best way to learn a foreign language is?
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses in English?/ What are your priorities for parts of your English that you want to improve? How do you think you can improve those things inside and outside the classroom?
  • I think that your fluency is a bit behind your accuracy and the difficulty of the language that you are using. You could go in Upper Intermediate or Advanced, but I’d recommend Upper so that you can concentrate on pausing less rather than trying to deal with lots of complex language. What do you think?
  • Have you been abroad? Where did you go? How long did you spend there? / What did you do there? Did you need to use English to get around? How well were you able to do that?
  • Who do you (usually) communicate with/ have you communicated/ will you have to communicate with (nationality, native or non-native, their level)? In what context did/ do/ will you communicate with them?
  • What problems have you had communicating in English (in that context you just told me about)?

Two things should be obvious from these questions. The first is that they entail a fair amount of grammar and vocabulary in understanding and answering them, and therefore serve the level testing purpose as well as the wider placement testing purposes. The other is that it is not possible to put students’ responses into a grid along with the level descriptors to decide which class they should go in. In fact, include these questions and the answers to them in your decisions of where to put a student is a deliberate attempt to reintroduce instinct into testing. The would be good not just for the students who have ended up in the class they should be in but also for the whole profession, as developing instincts and having them trusted (within a certain framework) is the sign of a real profession as opposed to the unskilled “workforce” that often seems to be the fast approaching future of English teaching worldwide.

Written by Alex Case for Teflnet July 2010
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
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