The Top Five Misconceptions about What ESL Placement Test Scores Tell You


At the beginning of each new semester, the productive hive of our English teacher’s work room is always buzzing with activity and chatter. One of the most common topics of discussion is testing or level placement. The comments are generally not positive.

“How did he get into my EFL advanced class? He can barely read!”

“That can’t be his TOEIC score! He can’t even carry on a conversation with me.”

“I know she has a good score, but she doesn’t belong in my English class. She doesn't even know basic grammar."

One of the greatest challenges that we as administrators and teachers face is figuring out how to properly place English language learners (ELLs) entering our programs. Some programs have their own placement tests. Some use standardized placement instruments such as CASAS or BEST Plus. Others rely on test scores from exams like the TOEIC, TOEFL, or Cambridge exams. No matter what method a program uses, there always seem to be disputes between teachers and administrators about student levels. From my experience, more often than not, these disagreements occur not because of problems with placement instruments themselves, but because of misconceptions about what information these tests provide. In this blog post, I discuss the top five assumptions made about placement instruments and how schools and teachers can address them.

Assumption #1: A student level's in one skill area roughly equates to a student's level in all skill areas.

For efficiency sake and to save money, many programs place students by using a test that focuses on one skill (often a receptive skill like reading or listening.) Then, the score is extrapolated to an overall level. However, such an extrapolation doesn’t always produce accurate results. Everyone has had that advanced level speaker who can’t read or the person with the perfect listening score who can’t carry on a conversation. Tests that include all four skill areas (like the TOEFL, IELTS, and Cambridge exams) often provide a clearer picture of student ability. If possible, programs should try to place students by evaluating all four skill areas or at least two-one productive and one receptive. If neither of these methods is possible, teachers should be prepared to fill in the gaps by testing students in the other skill areas on the first day of class through an exam or through class activities.

Assumption #2: A high level in one domain of language means a high level overall.

Most tests focus on one of three language domains--academic, business, or everyday English. Proficiency in one language domain doesn’t always mean proficiency in the others. High scores on tests of everyday English, for example, do not always correlate to strong academic English skills. Programs should make sure their placement instruments correlate with the language domain they teach. If a program focuses on everyday English, tests like the CASAS or BEST Plus would be appropriate to use for placement. If the program covers business English, scores on the TOEIC or Cambridge Business English suite of tests can be used to place students. If the program involves academic English, the student scores from the TOEFL or IELTS exam might provide a good method of placement. In the case of standardized exams like TOEIC and IELTS, if students have been unable to take the test prior to entering a program, a practice exam can be used. There are number available online or in a variety of test preparation books. Creating your own placement exam is also an option as well.

Assumption #3: A high speaking score in English indicates (or should indicate) a high degree of accuracy in English grammar and vocabulary usage.

Many ESL teachers are often surprised to find students whose speech is riddled with grammar errors placed into higher-level classes. Speaking tests often assess language ability via multi-faceted rubrics. Though accuracy is taken into account, it is only a small piece of pie. Fluency, comprehensibility, and organization of thoughts are much more important. Errors are only important insofar as they impede meaning. So, high intermediate speaking doesn’t translate to grammatically-perfect speaking. It just means that a student can deliver a comprehensible message at that level-even if that message is somewhat imprecise. English programs which include many classes that focus on accuracy (such as English grammar and vocabulary) should consider using a placement test that evaluates a student’s ability to produce correct language. If that’s not possible, consider adding a supplementary section to your existing exam.

Assumption #4: A high score on a multiple-choice test means the ESL student can use the language correctly in daily situations.

Most standardized tests utilize the multiple choice format in some form or fashion. Though incredibly efficient when it comes to grading, this format does have its weaknesses. These exams often evaluate the English learner's ability to recognize the answer, but not necessarily how to formulate an answer. So, it’s possible for an ESL student to do well on a multiple-choice vocabulary exam, but be unable to correctly use those words in a written or oral format. In order to better measure usage of English, programs should consider adding a free writing or speaking section to their placement exams. If that’s not possible, English teachers can create their own productive-skills assessment for their classrooms and deliver them on the first day. Even something as simple as listening to the language students doing discussion questions in partners can help evaluate a student’s ability.

Assumption #5: Placement in a specific ESL level means mastery of all ESL material prior to that level.

In a perfect world, a Level 5 student will have completely mastered everything from Levels 1-4. However, especially when dealing with adult students, that’s not always the case. When English learners take an exam, it covers a specific range of skills and content. However, no exam can cover everything. Students who score intermediate level have demonstrated an overall ability to communicate at that level. That student may have gaps in knowledge related to specific grammar or vocabulary targets based on previous exposure to the language. So, students who test into a specific class but seem to be missing some lower level English skills have not necessarily been placed in the wrong level. The best way to catch gaps early is for English teachers to create a pretest for their classes. Scores on the pretest can give instructors a better idea of what the students are missing, so the material can be adjusted appropriately.

There are no perfect ESL placement tests. However it is possible to choose or create placement instruments which provide better assessment relative to a specific program's content and goals. Hopefully these tips helped. Does anyone else have suggestions or tips for choosing or creating systems for placement? Please let us know.

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