Why Proficiency Assessment Matters
Proficiency is a much-discussed and frequently used word in the language education field. Our company and others deliver “proficiency” assessments. But which proficiency is most important to assess? Is it a student’s proficiency at conjugating verbs or reproducing dialogues memorized in the classroom? After all, this is the traditional way of teaching language in the U.S. and in Asia. A student who does these tasks well is probably proficient at memorizing grammar rules and set phrases. But do assessments of these skills tell us anything meaningful about the ability to use that language in the real world? Isn't that the real objective of learning a language?
There are many kinds of assessments that are used for different purposes. Simply stated, achievement assessment measures the ability to repeat language elements that have been taught and mastered at some level; performance assessment measures the ability to use language in a limited and controlled situation such as a classroom or controlled, situation-based conversation; and proficiency assessment measures the ability to use language in real-world contexts and situations. Each has a critical role in language learning, but proficiency assessment is the only one that measures the language that people use in the real world. As a result, proficiency is generally assessed once a year to measure how well students have developed their proficiency, and how effective the program has been in getting students to established proficiency goals for the program. This kind of assessment is called a summative assessment because it measures just that: the ability to use the sum of all the skills that students have learned in an unscripted, real-world context.
At the novice level, learners need to focus on memorizing vocabulary and applying structural and functional rules of the language–the basic building blocks of language–so achievement exercises/tests are particularly appropriate and important. As learners advance and accumulate more building blocks of language, classroom exercises and assessments that encourage learners to practice familiar topics in an unscripted, but comfortable environment can be effective in easing them into real-world proficiency situations. These performance exercises and assessments lie between achievement and proficiency, but are clearly distinct from proficiency.
I studied Japanese for two years in college before heading off to Tokyo to study in earnest. In college we learned the famous “Jordan Method”, rich in set phrases and constructions to memorize. If A then B; if B then C; and so on. When I got to Japan I quickly realized that even when I remembered A, B didn't usually come next. instead it was C or K or Z that I heard, and I was completely lost. You probably remember real conversation in another language in a similar way. I doubt that your experience followed the A, B, C sequence of the dialogues you had learned in school. I realized quickly that I had to think on my feet, improvise, and respond even though I didn’t understand all of the words my new friend was saying.
Proficiency is just that: functioning in real-world language by reading, writing, listening and speaking. In the classroom, teachers can really only teach and assess performance in controlled situations. However, if our goal is for students to be able to do these things in the real world, we must measure their “proficiency” at critical learning points or benchmarks in their learning process.
Proficiency assessments must utilize topics that are unplanned and potentially unpracticed, but that are appropriate for a learner’s level. A proficiency assessment that questions a novice learner about politics will be meaningless, but one that asks about personal information for an exchange student, for example, is appropriate even if the learner hasn’t studied vocabulary or a dialogue specific to that situation. The exchange student question will ask the learner to pull together language that s/he has learned in a way that replicates real world language, i.e. a proficiency-based situation. Only in this way can we identify what the student can do with the skills s/he has acquired and better identify where their strengths and weaknesses are. This assessment data and information then assists teachers in improving their teaching and helps direct more effective student learning.
Finally, third party proficiency assessment plays an important role in parent relations and communications. Often, parents of immersion students: (1) Expect that their students will become "fluent" just by being in an immersion program, and (2) measure their student's language skill solely on their speaking ability, e.g. “Sandy, go ahead and order some spring rolls from that Chinese waiter.” A third-party assessment can report on their student's proficiency level in all domains of reading, writing, listening, and speaking; describe what the level means; and communicate to parents clearly where their student stands relative to the proficiency goals of the program. The teacher can then step back from the discussion with parents about the student's grade and what elements may have gone into calculating it, and focus instead on what the student can do next to improve, and how s/he is meeting the expectations.
Experience and research has shown that when students, teachers, and parents all understand and agree on the learning goals, outcomes improve consistently. Summative, third-party, proficiency assessment plays a critical role in identifying whether those goals have been reached, captures data showing program effectiveness, and helps both students and parents understand where learners are on their journey of language acquisition.