How do our placement tests work?

One of the aspects that we get the most questions about is our placement tests.

In this article, we are going to explain how they work and how we got to the test we use today.

First, we should clarify that the emphasis of our school is on conversation. Why is this important? Because, when we do our assessment, we want to know how well the learner speaks the language, not necessarily his/her theoretical knowledge.

Most of the renowned tests currently on the market evaluate several dimensions of a language:

  • Oral comprehension.

  • Reading.

  • Theoretical knowledge.

  • Writing/spelling.

  • Oral expression.

Although the "oral expression" part of these tests is improving, the fact remains that it lags behind the other aspects, resulting in an overestimation of the real level of the learners when we consider oral competence. Why? This is especially true for English, because we are constantly exposed to it through TV shows, songs, reading, or even school instruction. As a result, when we are assessed on dimensions of a language other than speaking, our performance may appear to be significantly superior -- our "practice" of these theoretical components is generally better - depending on speaking experience. Whether at work or with friends, we may be too shy to speak the target language, when we are not at the level we would like it to be at.

Thus, our test is done one on one, in the form of an interview. There is no theoretical part. No multiple-choice, no reading. We directly assess the part of the language that we are going to be working on and which is generally the weakest among learners: oral expression. Our educational grid, as well as our test, is developed to meet this goal.

Currently, our test takes between 15min to 20min. But it was not always that duration. A few years ago, we were doing a much more in-depth assessment. The test could last almost 60min for the most advanced learners. But over the years, we found that a 60min test did not prevent the following errors:

  • The learner is nervous during assessment and underperforms.

  • The learner already knows several languages and will have greater ease in acquiring another.

  • The learner is between two levels.

  • The learner is at a "corrective" level. This means he/she speaks well but makes ingrained mistakes. So, we need to review and "reprogram" these errors to correct them.

Let us clarify some of these points. Just because we have 10 levels, it doesn't mean that every learner falls into exactly on one level. The reality is that knowledge of a language exists on a continuum, not in predefined subgroups. Each of our learning levels has identified objectives and a learner will be classified at a level when he/she does not master the majority of the objectives of that level. Usually, our test gives us an excellent picture of the learner's needs, but sometimes we have learners who are exactly between two levels.

Also, not all learners have the same rate of acquisition of the target language. This can be said of learning in general - some will go faster, others will take longer. So even using a more precise test, we ended up with a disparate group after the 10th hour or so of class; faster learners had progressed and while others had lagged behind.

The other factor that made us move to a shorter test is, companies' reality. We have 10 levels in most of the languages we teach. This means if a company wanted to have this high level of precision, it would have to offer several groups, not necessarily a group for each level, because the ability distribution is not even over the learning curve. Also, depending on the number of learners, the class size could be very small, possibly one-on-one with the teacher. This makes the cost of training-per-learner higher. Generally, companies opt for groups of four to six participants, even if it means having to group adjacent levels. From an educational point of view, this is not ideal, but from a training point of view, this is far better than not having any language training.

Our assessment is done by phone or video conference depending on where the learner is located. Of course, with Covid-19, this reality is obvious, but we started this type of assessment long before the pandemic.

Initially, we organized on-site evaluations, but the logistics of this approach were cumbersome and not ideal for companies. Having employees traveling for a 15-20min assessment was difficult and there were problems; late arrivals, no-shows, last-minute rescheduling, etc.

With a distance assessment, the process is much simpler. No more trips and almost anyone can schedule 15-20min in their schedule. Without the travel time, this is no longer a problem.

So there you have it for the little story on our test. Do you want to know your level in our educational grid? Contact us.