How to assess a test

by | 9 March 2021

It’s understandable to view selecting a placement test as just another item to tick off a brimming to-do list. But the decision you make will typically be with you for years to come, so it’s worth being a little more rigorous.

The first step is to be sure that you know the role the test will be playing. A placement test is different from a proficiency test or a diagnostic test: its primary role is to place test takers in a learning environment where they can flourish. As you review the test, keep this (or whatever other purpose you have) in mind.

Over the last five years, Clarity has helped a lot of teachers and administrators through the test selection process. As developers of the Dynamic Placement Test, we have come up with a list of criteria for what a successful placement test should look like. So here are ten questions you can use to review any placement test. You can answer most of them objectively, and this will help you make the correct decision.

1. Is the test adaptive?

An adaptive test is one that responds to a test taker’s answers by making subsequent questions easier or more difficult. To be accurate and reliable, a placement test needs to be adaptive. However, while being adaptive makes the test more effective, it also means that the process of evaluating it is somewhat more complex. See point 2.

2. Have you tried the test as a student?

When you go through the test, it’s tempting to try to get all the answers right. That’s fine, provided you understand that the test will adapt to you being a proficient user of the language, and will deliver the most difficult test items. You should therefore try the test again, mimicking a learner at A1 or A2 level. Keep that learner in mind as you work through the different parts of the test. Are the questions appropriate? Does the test produce the result you expected?

3. Which devices will it run on?

It may be that you intend to run placement tests on desktop computers in a lab, but as remote learning (or partially remote learning) becomes more normalised this is increasingly less likely. So you will probably need to make sure the test you select runs on test takers’ own devices — this means desktops, laptops, tablets and mobiles. Ensure this is possible.

4. What internet connectivity does the test require?

Equally, it’s worth finding out the quality of the internet connection required to run the test smoothly. Institutions with excellent internet onsite are increasingly testing learners who are overseas, perhaps in countries with less advanced infrastructure, often from their homes. If that is the case with you, find out how the test deals with intermittent connections, and what happens when the connection goes down altogether.

5. How do you set up a test?

How easy is it to set up a test for a single test taker or for a group of test takers (perhaps a large group)? It’s essential to have a go with the test administration component, and to make sure that it is accessible, intuitive and easy-to-use for the people in your organisation who are likely to be setting up tests and processing results.

6. What is the output of the test?

You are administering the test for a specific purpose and you need to make sure that the test output matches that purpose. Let’s look at two examples. Maybe you are testing learners of English to see whether they are ready to enter an IELTS preparation class. In this case, the output should cross-reference language competence with indicative IELTS band scores. Alternatively, you might be screening job applicants; only those with a CEFR B2 can remain in the recruitment process. In this case, does the test grade test takers by CEFR level?

7. How does the publisher support the test?

There are three areas to consider here:
a. Administrator support. Are there videos and documents to help administrators learn how to set up tests in the system, run the tests in different scenarios and process results?
b. Test taker support. Is there a familiarisation video (perhaps in multiple languages) so that test takers can start the test feeling confident that they know what they are going to have to do?
c. Technical support. What is the company’s technical support policy? This is especially important if you are planning to run large-scale tests. Will there be someone on hand to advise on problems that you anticipate, or to answer last-minute questions?

8. How much does the test cost?

If the answers to the first seven questions are all positive, you’ll need to make sure that the test fits in with your budget.

9. What test options are available?

This is really the icing on the cake, but it’s still worth discussing options you consider essential, as well as those which are nice-to-have. Here are three questions you might ask:

  • Can the instructions be made available in different languages?
  • Can you select a time zone so that published test times are local?
  • Is there a certificate for test takers who successfully complete the test?

Ask the publisher what other options are available.

10. Is the test experience engaging?

While your primary concern is that the test is valid and reliable, the test experience is also important. After all, it is in the nature of a placement test that it is often the first contact test takers have with the language provision of your organisation. So it’s worth asking questions like these: Did I enjoy taking the test? Did it look attractive and up-to-date? Was there an engaging variety of task types? Was it error-free? Am I able to display my organisation’s logo on the test?

These ten questions should be fairly easy to answer. Choosing a placement test may appear to be something of a chore, and that’s why it’s worth doing it systematically. You can avoid opting for the wrong test — and having to go through exactly the same process again next year.

Further reading

Andrew Stokes, Publisher, ClarityEnglish

Andrew Stokes, Publisher, ClarityEnglish