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Volume 23, No. 2 Winter 2000-2001

Foreign Language Assessment:
30 Years of Evolution and Change

Lynn Thompson, Center for Applied Linguistics

Much has been written about the evolution in foreign language instruction and assessment during the last two decades. Foreign language instruction is said to have moved from an almost exclusive focus on the components of language — grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation — to a focus on the development of communicative proficiency — the ability to communicate in the target language in real-life contexts (Shultz, 1998, p. 7). This change in focus is also evident in foreign language assessments: "As the focus of foreign language instruction has moved away from the discrete language skills of grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation toward the development of communicative proficiency, so has the focus of language testing moved away from discrete-point tests toward measures of actual performance" (Bachman, 1990, p. 27).

Catalysts for change in foreign language instruction and assessment have come from the "top down" in the form of national assessment and standards initiatives and from the "bottom up" as seen in local assessment initiatives. The national initiatives have widely influenced instruction and assessment practices. The local assessment initiatives have appeared in response to curricular and instructional changes (Rennie, 1998, p. 27). By tracing key developments in foreign language teaching and assessment in the 1980s and 1990s, this article examines the interactive relationships between the two.

Initiatives of the 1980s

The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines

Many foreign language professionals point to the creation and implementation of the ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) Proficiency Guidelines (1982, 1986) as the primary catalyst for change in foreign language assessment and instruction. These guidelines provide a broad framework for assessing students' functional language use based on the long experience of the U.S. government's language training establishment (Hancock & Scebold, 2000). Rather than promote discrete-point testing, the guidelines define four main levels of language proficiency, from Novice to Superior, that are then divided into nine subcategories that describe specific communicative tasks that individuals should be able to carry out at each level (Shultz, 1998, p. 8). These guidelines were widely distributed throughout the foreign language profession and were field tested by training several hundred individuals to administer face-to-face speaking tests and to rate the examinees using the proficiency levels defined in the guidelines (Stansfield, 1992). The proficiency guidelines were re-published in 1986 and subsequently adapted for specific languages. Implementation of the ACTFL guidelines dominated the decade (Hancock & Scebold, 2000). Although the guidelines were designed with the adult language learner in mind, their influence has been seen in instructional and assessment practices from elementary school through college.

Local Assessment Initiatives:
From Traditional Tests to New Alternatives

At the same time, foreign language assessment was being influenced by the evolution in approaches to foreign language instruction. Proficiency-oriented or communicative language teaching called for a shift from teaching language as a set of discrete skills to teaching students to communicate in the target language in real-life contexts. Traditionally, foreign language tests measured language development on the basis of the number of correct answers to discrete-point items. Such tests were often multiple-choice or true-false and assessed students' ability to recognize the correct answer rather than produce it. As teachers embraced proficiency-oriented instruction, they also gradually incorporated the use of new, alternative practices in assessment that focused on language use. This new breed of assessments required students to demonstrate their knowledge and were scored holistically, using a set of scoring criteria.

Types of Assessments in Use

To verify the impact of these national and local initiatives on the assessment instruments used in the 1980s, a number of online and print collections of language tests were searched. An initial search of the online ETS Test File [1] produced only four foreign language tests, designed for students in traditional foreign language programs. These tests, all developed in the 1970s, were traditional, standardized tests focusing on listening, reading, pronunciation, and grammar and used only multiple-choice items. The remainder of the tests retrieved by searching the ETS Test File were for English as a second language and bilingual (Spanish/English) programs. They were largely traditional in nature and focused on identifying language dominance (English or Spanish) and on mastery of basic academic knowledge and skills. Many of these tests also dated from the 1970s or earlier. The few tests that appeared to be more proficiency oriented dated from 1982-1989. Annotated bibliographies of commercially available foreign language tests, published by ETS in 1985, follow the same pattern: traditional in format, many standardized and multiple-choice, focused almost exclusively on listening, reading, vocabulary, and grammar, and almost all for the secondary or post-secondary learner.

A subsequent search of tests listed in K–8 Foreign Language Assessment: A Bibliography, which were developed by school and district staff and by non-profit academic institutions, [2] found that assessments reflecting communicative approaches to instruction were available in the 1980s. One example is a holistic, K–12 observation matrix for rating students' second language speaking proficiency in immersion programs, developed in 1978 (SOLOM — Student Oral Language Observation Matrix). Other assessments from the1980s included communicative assessment units (1982-86) for third-, sixth-, and ninth-grade immersion; another holistic, K–12 observation matrix for speaking proficiency (1984); and an oral proficiency interview procedure with a rating scale using adapted ACTFL guidelines for fifth- and sixth-grade immersion (1988) available in seven languages.

Information about high school and college-level foreign language assessments from this period was found in the Foreign Language Test Database,, a searchable database of secondary and college-level tests in languages other than English. [3] Among the tests in the database are many that show the direct influence of the proficiency movement and the ACTFL guidelines. From the 1980s, these include the ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview and simulated oral proficiency interviews (SOPIs), such as the Spanish Speaking Test (1985), which are tape-mediated oral proficiency interviews rated according to the ACTFL scale. A number of other assessments from the 1980s made use of the ACTFL guidelines to assign ratings for proficiency in the other language skills — listening, reading, and writing. In addition, a number of tests have features or components that reflect a communicative language approach. Tasks use authentic materials such as actual radio broadcasts, advertisements, and newspaper articles.

Initiatives of the 1990s

Standards for Foreign Language Learning

The 1990s have been characterized as the standards decade (Hancock & Scebold, 2000). Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century (ACTFL, 1999), the result of an unprecedented collaborative undertaking of national associations of foreign language teachers, have initiated profession-wide change. The standards describe what students should know and be able to do in the languages they are learning. The standards establish goals and activities for learning in five areas: communication, cultures, connections, comparisons, and communities.

The legacy of communicative language teaching and the ACTFL guidelines are continued in the national standards, which encourage teachers to focus on communicative ability as a whole and not to separate components of language learning into distinct skills that must be mastered individually. The standards strive to create a community of learners who are able to communicate in meaningful and appropriate ways in the languages they are learning.

The impact of the national standards on foreign language educational practice has been phenomenal. More than 40 states or districts have developed their own foreign language standards. [4] Preliminary results of a survey of foreign language teachers conducted just one year after the creation of the national standards found that approximately half of the surveyed teachers were aware of national or state standards (Solomon, 1997). This awareness prompted curriculum changes in 57% of the responding elementary schools and 56% of the responding secondary schools. Some specific changes include authentic use of the target language, focus on proficiency, emphasis on assessment, the integration of culture into language instruction, activity-based lessons, and increased emphasis on speaking and listening proficiency (Solomon, 1997).

The ACTFL Performance Guidelines for K–12 Learners

The national standards have helped build consensus on national, state, and local levels concerning the goals and objectives of language study. To help teachers assess attainment of these goals and objectives, the ACTFL Performance Guidelines for K–12 Learners (ACTFL, 1998) were developed. These guidelines update and redefine proficiency in terms of the competencies identified in the national standards and provide a template for measuring the language skills of K–12 foreign language learners.

The Standards Assessment Design Project

The last link in the chain that began with the creation of the national foreign language standards in 1996 and continued with the ACTFL Performance Guidelines in 1998 is the creation of an assessment mechanism to measure student performance in standards-based programs. This was accomplished through the Standards Assessment Design Project, launched by ACTFL in September 1997 and completed in August 2000. Central to this project is the Performance Assessment Unit (PAU), which features three tasks, each of which reflects one of the three modes of communication (interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational). Each task develops and assesses the content and skills necessary for the next task, so that the tasks are interrelated and build on one another ("Step Three, the PAU Project," 2000). Two PAUs were created and piloted tested at six sites around the country. The PAUs were revised following extensive feedback and administered in classes in the 1999-2000 school year. In talking about the PAUs, Rita Oleksak, a teacher at one of the pilot sites, reported that teachers and students saw the tasks "as an interesting activity, part of their learning. The assessment itself became a teaching tool," (p. 253). As of this writing, ACTFL is finalizing the PAUs and plans to publish them along with student exemplars in 2001 (P. Sandrock, Standards Assessment Design Project Task Force Coordinator, personal communication, December 15, 2000).

Local Assessment Initiatives

Many local foreign language standards or frameworks and new curricula are being written and implemented in response to newly adopted state or foreign language standards. Along with standards have come performance indicators or benchmarks. Performance tasks are emphasized, and the use of holistically scored, alternative assessment instruments is prevalent. In North Carolina, 30 elementary, middle, and high school foreign language teachers from 10 counties developed and published assessment tools to be used for classroom assessment and for articulation with other levels (in a 3-year project funded through the federal Foreign Language Assistance Program; Assessment, Articulation, and Accountability, 1999). In Connecticut, the results of state efforts to develop foreign language standards and assessments are shared among practitioners through the Internet. The Connecticut Department of Education has an exciting and valuable Web site ( ) that features their new World Languages Curriculum Guide. Similar to the Standards for Foreign Language Learning, the Connecticut World Languages Curriculum Guide is based on five goals: "[to] communicate in languages other than English, gain knowledge and understanding of other cultures, make connections with other disciplines and acquire information, understand the nature of language and cultures through comparison, and participate in multilingual communities and global societies." Sample assessments for Grades K–4, 5–8, and 9–12, as well as illustrative learning activities and samples of student work, are included in this valuable resource.

Assessments in Use

A review of the assessment instruments collected in 1994-95 for K–8 Foreign Language Assessment: A Bibliography (Thompson, 1995) found that a major shift toward proficiency-oriented assessment had taken place in the field. Only 33% of the tests were placement examinations, end-of-year examinations, end-of-unit examinations, and tests of passive knowledge (listening, reading, or vocabulary skills). These tests reflected traditional perspectives and focused on discrete linguistic elements, using multiple-choice, true-false, or matching item types. In contrast, 67% of the tests were proficiency based or had some proficiency-based components. Hybrid tests (that combine features of traditional assessments and proficiency-based assessments) included prochievement tests, situationally based tests with multiple-choice items, authentic materials within a traditional format, and testing packets that included traditional formats for assessing listening and reading and proficiency-based, holistically rated written and oral performance tasks. Alternative assessments included checklists; holistically rated authentic reading, writing, speaking, and listening tasks using culturally authentic materials and scenarios; student self-assessments; portfolios; oral proficiency interview procedures that used the ACTFL guidelines or holistic rubrics for rating; and, for the first time, performance tasks that integrated language and content learning.

Further additions to this collection show an increasing use of alternative assessments. In 1996-97, more than 50 new assessments were added to the collection (Thompson, 1997). Some of the new tests were hybrids, but most were alternative assessments focusing on proficiency. In 1998-99, the collection was once again expanded, with a deliberate focus on Grades 9–12. [5] Performance tasks integrating language and content learning with assessment are prevalent among the 9–12 assessments, reflecting the increasing influence of the national standards and paralleling the focus of the Performance Assessment Units project. Assessments in this collection include projects such as creating and presenting autobiographical pop-up books or shadow boxes, and writing and presenting children's stories. These projects are end-of-the-unit assessments that are rated holistically by the teacher and fellow students. Traditional test formats are still in use primarily as placement tests or end-of-year examinations, although they now use more authentic materials and content.

The tests included in the Foreign Language Test Database[3] show the same pattern — continued use of traditional tests for placement and summative evaluation, but also an increasing use of holistic rating methods such as those used with the SOPIs and other assessments that rely on the ACTFL proficiency guidelines.


The legacy of the proficiency movement can be seen in important consensus-building events in foreign language education and in the types of assessments created over the last 20 years. From the ACTFL proficiency guidelines to the Performance Assessment Units project, foreign language learning and assessment have moved from a preoccupation with discrete aspects of language to a broader, richer, communicative context to promote and document foreign language learning.


1 The ETS (Educational Testing Service) Test File contains descriptions of over 10,000 tests and research instruments, including tests in the ETS Tests in Microfiche Collection, tests available from the ERIC Document Reproduction Service, tests described in journal articles or book chapters, and commercially available tests ( (back to text)

2 Compiled in 1994-95, K–8 Foreign Language Assessment: A Bibliography sought to identify the means by which teachers assessed their students and to compile descriptions of instruments and techniques, both traditional and alternative, that could then be made available to other foreign language educators. This information was gathered through extensive telephone surveys with state and district foreign language supervisors and with foreign language educators nationwide. It has been updated in Thompson (1997). (back to text)

3 The Foreign Language Test Database currently contains more than 140 tests in 63 languages. The database is maintained by the National Capital Language Resource Center, a joint project of Georgetown University, The George Washington University, and the Center for Applied Linguistics. (back to text)

4 A listing of state and local foreign language standards developed by the Tennessee Foreign Language Professional Resource Center. (back to text)

5 In 1998-99, the Grade 9–12 collection was published online. In December 2000, the assessments in the 1997 K–8 collection were updated and merged with the 9–12 collection (Thompson, 2000) to become the Directory of K–12 Foreign Language Assessment Instruments and Resources. (back to text)


American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. (1982). ACTFL provisional proficiency guidelines. Yonkers, NY: Author.

American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. (1986). ACTFL proficiency guidelines. Yonkers, NY: Author.

American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. (1998). ACTFL performance guidelines for K–12 learners. Yonkers, NY: Author.

American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. (1999). Standards for foreign language learning in the 21st century. Yonkers, NY: Author.

Assessment, Articulation, and Accountability. (1999). Raleigh, NC: Department of Public Instruction. Available: Fran Hoch, or (919) 715-1797; or Bernadette Morris, or (919) 715-1798.

Bachman, L.F. (1990). Fundamental considerations in language testing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hancock, C., & Scebold, C.E. (2000). Defining moments in foreign and second language education during the last half of the twentieth century. In D. Birchbichler & R. Terry (Eds.), Reflecting on the past to shape the future (pp.1-17). Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook.

Rennie, J. (1998). Current trends in foreign language assessment. The ERIC Review, 6(1), 27-31.

Shulz, R. (1998). Foreign language education in the United States: Trends and challenges. The ERIC Review, 6(1), 6-12.

Solomon, J. (1997). Language teachers align curricula with standards: Preliminary results of a national survey. ERIC/CLL News Bulletin, 21(1), 1-6.

Stansfield, C. (1992). ACTFL speaking proficiency guidelines. ERIC Digest. Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics.

Step three, the PAU project: After standards and guidelines, how do we assess performance in the real world? (2000). Foreign Language Annals, 33(2), 237, 253-254.

Thompson, L. (1995). K–8 foreign language assessment: A bibliography. Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics.

Thompson, L. (1997). Foreign language assessment in grades K–8: An annotated bibliography of assessment instruments. McHenry, IL, and Washington, DC: Delta Systems and Center for Applied Linguistics.

Thompson, L. (2000). Directory of K–12 foreign language assessment resources. Washington, DC: National K–12 Foreign Language Resource Center/Center for Applied Linguistics and ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics.

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