ERIC Identifier: ED321588
Publication Date: 1990-09-00
Author: Lange, Dale L.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics Washington
Assessing Language Proficiency for Credit in Higher
Education. ERIC Digest.
This Digest assumes general familiarity with the American Council on
the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) skill level descriptions. For
more information on the ACTFL guidelines, see the resources listed in the
reference section at the end of the Digest.
There are two broad solutions to the assessment of foreign language
proficiency for credit in higher education. The first solution is to use
time as an indicator (a seat-time requirement). For example, students must
bring two to three years of secondary-level foreign language study to fulfill
a university entrance requirement, and must complete an additional two
to three quarters of study at the higher education level to meet the graduation
requirement. The second solution is to require tested competence in a foreign
language (a proficiency requirement). Students may be required to pass
a proficiency examination before being admitted to an institution of higher
learning or may be required to pass a proficiency examination as part of
a graduation requirement. This Digest focuses on the second type of assessment.
The objective of a requirement based on proficiency testing is to encourage
students to develop not only basic survival skills in the language being
studied, but to achieve the ability to communicate in a number of contexts
Foreign language proficiency is defined here as the ability to use the
language modalities (listening, reading, writing, speaking), and to assume
the cultural framework of the language being studied for the purpose of
communicating ideas and information. While guidelines for a specific definition
of foreign language proficiency do not yet exist, the closest description
available is in the Proficiency Guidelines of the American Council on the
Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL, 1982).
WHAT ARE THE CONSIDERATIONS INVOLVED IN DEVELOPING LANGUAGE PROFICIENCY
REQUIREMENTS AS CREDIT STANDARDS?
Articulation. Articulation between secondary schools and institutions
of higher education is very important. If proficiency guidelines are to
be implemented at the university level, great care must be taken to communicate
expectations to secondary programs. The choice of proficiency levels for
entrance or graduation (or both) requires consultation and communication
with colleagues in secondary schools, community colleges, and four-year
Utility. Ascertaining how usable and accurate a student's language skills
are is a major concern for students who aim beyond the requirement and
seek to use their language skills in their studies or professionally, and
for curriculum designers, textbook writers, and supervisors in the work
Testing. The availability or development of appropriate and reliable
tests is a major concern. Should an institution use tests that are already
available or create their own? What are the costs involved in developing
a test? Who among the staff has the necessary qualifications for developing
or administering a language proficiency test? The less commonly taught
languages, particularly those for which there are no ACTFL proficiency
guidelines (e.g., Arabic, Latin, Urdu, Norwegian, Hindi) require other
considerations (Stansfield, & Kenyon, 1990). For example, in Arabic,
there are five different macro-dialects. For which dialect should proficiency
guidelines be created?
HOW ARE THE ACTFL PROFICIENCY GUIDELINES APPLIED TO THE DETERMINATION
OF PROFICIENCY REQUIREMENTS?
The ACTFL proficiency guidelines act as a construct for examining and
determining the language abilities of foreign language students, and set
a standard for assessing three factors that constitute proficiency for
each modality: Function, Content/Context, and Accuracy. A performance profile
of a student is presented in terms of the functions (tasks) that the student
can perform in the language being studied, the types of content/context
in which these tasks can be performed, and how accurately these tasks can
be performed (Byrnes, et al., 1986).
ARE THERE EXAMPLES OF PROFICIENCY-BASED PROGRAMS CURRENTLY IN EFFECT?
The University of Pennsylvania (Freed 1983, 1987) has implemented a
proficiency requirement based on five standards: oral interaction, listening
and reading comprehension, writing, and cultural knowledge. Performance
tests relating to an average of Intermediate High on the ACTFL Proficiency
Guidelines are used to measure the four language modalities. (An evaluation
of cultural competence has not yet been created.) The College Entrance
Examination Board (CEEB) achievement tests are included as part of the
testing program. Students must achieve a score of 500 on the CEEB tests.
Essentially, the system is a compensatory one. An average Intermediate
High can be achieved by higher ratings in some modalities than in others.
The compensatory system also includes the CEEB tests. The implementation
of the program has produced positive effects on faculty decisions relating
to language programs, given a new sense of importance to foreign language
teaching assistants, and made visible changes in course content toward
The University of Arizona has outlined a plan (Schulz, 1988) for the
implementation of a proficiency requirement. This plan is based on the
analysis of a set of tasks that define and test proficiency at the fourth
semester level. The plan contains the following steps: 1) review the literature
on proficiency and proficiency testing; 2) define the foreign language
requirement in terms of language competence; 3) select possible testing
procedures and item types; 4) determine implications for instruction and
the training of teaching assistants; 5) create computerized item banks
for all language modalities and knowledge areas; 6) pretest items for all
levels of instruction; 7) conduct an item analysis for all items in the
computerized item banks; 8) as a quality check, redo pretesting with test
items that have been chosen; 9) determine minimum competence levels or
decide on the overall score necessary to fulfill the language requirement;
10) establish policies for students who do not meet the requirement; 11)
implement the requirement with continued evaluation of the testing program;
12) develop a guide so that secondary schools, community colleges, and
other colleges and universities may understand the requirement; 13) implement
placement testing for students with prior language study.
THE UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA: A CASE STUDY
The Requirement. Currently, the foreign language requirement at the
University of Minnesota, College of Liberal Arts, is based on the demonstration
of a proficiency standard for entrance to the college as well as demonstration
of proficiency for graduation.
Testing. A set of tests in listening, reading, writing, and speaking
for both entrance and graduation have been created to measure students'
competence at these two points. The tests are based on the ACTFL Proficiency
Guidelines. For the entrance standard, the levels chosen are Intermediate-Low
for listening and reading, and Novice-High for speaking and writing. For
the graduation requirement, the levels are Intermediate-High for listening
and reading, and Intermediate-Mid for speaking and writing. All speaking
tests take the shape of the oral interview with test items in each of the
Warm-Up, Level Check, Probe, and Wind-Down phases. The listening and reading
tests are machine scorable, multiple-choice tests, of 40 items each. The
entrance speaking test is a recorded oral interview, while the graduation
requirement speaking test is a face-to-face oral interview. The writing
tests for both entrance and graduation require students to produce written
language at a specific level. The tests are constructed so that 80% of
the items are either below or at the chosen proficiency levels; 20% of
the items probe into the next level. The structures assess student ability
to sustain the levels of ability indicated. For a complete description
of the levels chosen and a more complete description of the requirement,
see Arendt, Lange, and Wakefield (1986), and Foreign Language Proficiency
Program and Test Development. The testing program was developed from
three workshops: curriculum, test types and constraints, and item writing.
In the workshops, participants came from secondary schools, community colleges,
private colleges, the state university system, and the University of Minnesota.
A three-day curriculum workshop reacquainted the participants of a 1983
summer proficiency workshop with the ACTFL Provisional Proficiency Guidelines.
A subsequent workshop on test constraints and test types for each of the
language modalities determined the compromises necessary to make tests
cost effective, efficient, and appropriate. The results provided a framework
for the testing program: two tests would be machine scored (listening and
reading); the entrance speaking test would be recorded, whereas the test
for graduation would be live. The third workshop developed, over a five
day (40 hours) period, item banks for listening, reading, writing, and
From the summer of 1984 through the spring of 1986, tests were created,
and test items were examined through pilot testing in both the University
of Minnesota courses and in some public school classes. A revised set of
tests was ready for the initial phase-in of the project in the fall 1986.
Those tests have been revised twice since that time; alternate forms of
the writing test have been created; and some further adjustments have been
made to items to make them more appropriate. The entrance speaking test
has just been finished and will be used for the first time at the beginning
of the fall quarter, 1990. Up to this point, the testing program has generated,
revised, pilot tested, and put into use some 36 tests. The next effort
will be the expansion of the program in the less commonly studied languages.
Results. In Minnesota, language enrollments in secondary schools have
risen dramatically over the past six years. This effect does not result
from the University of Minnesota requirement alone; it is coupled with
a state requirement that all secondary schools offer at least three years
of one language. Language enrollments have increased from a low of 17%
in the early 1980's to a high of 35% in 1989. Currently, 70-80% of admitted
freshmen are passing the entrance tests in listening, reading, and writing.
For those students who go on to the graduation requirement, 60-70% are
passing tests in listening, reading, and writing. Probably the most important
result is that students are completing the language requirement at the
end of their freshman year.
After considerable planning and communication across education levels,
all of the above mentioned programs have, thus far, indicated positive
results in the implementation of a foreign language requirement based on
tested competence. Perhaps, the next question to be addressed is how students
can use this newly developed language competence. One answer is found in
the use of foreign language courses in the liberal arts curriculum. From
philosophy to economics, second language study complements and enriches
education by offering a different key to knowledge and discovery (Brinton,
Snow, & Wesche, 1989). In this way, language competence is usable across
"ACTFL provisional proficiency guidelines." (1982). Hastings-on-Hudson,
NY: American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.
Arendt, J.D., Lange, D.L., & Wakefield, R. (1986). Strengthening
the language requirement at the University of Minnesota: An initial report.
"Foreign Language Annals (19)," pp149-56.
Byrnes, H., et al. (1986). ACTFL proficiency guidelines, In H. Byrnes
& M. Canale (Eds.), (1986). "Defining and developing proficiency: Guidelines,
Implementations, and concepts."
Brinton, D.M., Snow, M.A., & Wesche, M.B. (1989). "Content-based
second language instruction." New York: Newbury House.
"Foreign language proficiency standards for entrance and graduation.
College of Liberal Arts. A guide for teachers of French." (1986). Minneapolis,
MN: University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts. (ERIC Document No.
ED 309 618. For German, see ED 309 619 and for Spanish, see ED 309 617.)
Freed, B.F. (1983). Proficiency in context: The Pennsylvania experience.
In S.J. Savignon & M.S. Berns (Eds.), "Initiatives in communicative
language teaching: A book of readings." Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, pp211-240.
Freed, B.F. (1987). Preliminary impressions of the effects of a proficiency-based
language requirement. "Foreign Language Annals (20)," pp139-46.
Schulz, R.A. (1988). Proficiency-based foreign language requirements:
A plan for action. "ADFL Bulletin (19)" 2, pp24-28.
Stansfield, C.W., & Kenyon, D.M. (1990). Extension of ACTFL guidelines
for less commonly taught languages. In A.M. Padilla, H.H. Fairfield, &
C.M. Valadez, "Foreign language education: Issues and strategies." Newbury
Park, CA: Sage Publications. pp95-103.
FOR FURTHER READING
Lange, D.L. (1987). Developing and implementing proficiency Oriented
tests for a new language requirement at the University of Minnesota: Issues
and problems for implementing the ACTFL/ETS/ILR proficiency guidelines.
In A. Valdman (Ed.), "Proceedings of the Symposium on the Evaluation of
Foreign Language Proficiency." Bloomington, IN: Committee for Research