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Online Resources: Frequently Asked Questions

How is second language proficiency assessed?

As the ability to speak more than one language becomes more important, so too does the need to assess the language abilities of second language learners. In the classroom, assessment can be seen as an ongoing process, in which the teacher uses various tools to measure the progress of the learner. Among those tools are portfolios, self-assessment, and, of course, tests. If assessment can be seen as a movie, then a test is a freeze frame: it gives a picture of the learner's language at a particular point in time. Used properly, these tools can help the teacher develop a full picture of the learner's progress. It is important to note that all types of testing and assessment are important in gathering information about your students.

Testing has traditionally been the most widely used assessment tool in the classroom, and in many classrooms, it still is. Moreover, testing has applications outside of the classroom. Foreign language programs test students for placement, colleges and universities test students for credit, and employers test the abilities of prospective employees. In any testing situation, it is important to consider which of the four skills (speaking, listening, reading, writing) needs to be assessed, who will be taking the test, and for what purposes the test results will be used. Clearly, a test which is appropriate in one situation may be inappropriate in another: a test designed to measure the reading abilities of elementary school learners will not be appropriate for college placement. Thus, when choosing a test to use, it is important to define the testing situation, and then to find or develop a test that fits the situation.

It is also important to know the reliability and validity of the test, especially if the test is to be used for high-stakes purposes, such as entrance into a college or university. Reliability measures the consistency of the test; validity is the extent to which the test measures what it claims to measure. Large scale standardized tests have more reliability and validity requirements than classroom tests, and many books, articles, research projects, and other materials have been devoted to this issue.

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