Defining a language test

by | 12 October 2022

Students taking a placement test, at Universitas Andalas, Indonesia.

When we talk about tests, different people have different things in mind and often vastly different expectations. I suppose most of us don’t spend a lot of time really thinking about tests, especially not those of us who have been out of school since the last century.

I have the great fortune to be a rare breed — I am a Test Developer and as a Test Developer I usually spend my days in the office thinking about tests and testing. In the modern world, we are constantly being bombarded by tests. My daughter just had a math test, my wife took a driving test (she passed), my doctor gave me a blood test, and the bank even recently tested my credit (I also passed!). And if my wife goes off with her newly minted driver’s license and has a beer or two, she could face an alcohol test from the friendly neighborhood police department.

With all these tests going on around us, we tend to overlook the most basic questions about the tests. What is being tested? How is the score calculated? What do the results mean?

And as a Test Developer, I ask myself even deeper existential questions: Who wrote this test? Is the test valid? Does the test REALLY test what it says it is going to test? And how is all of this measured? Do the people who wrote the test know what they were doing? And, really, what gives them the authority to test ME?

To start off, let’s consider that not all tests are the same. After all, not all tests are created equal. Here are some of the most common tests:

  • Placement test – this kind of test is primarily a teaching tool. The purpose of placement testing is to determine a learner’s current knowledge level (such as in reading, writing and math or languages). The goal is to place the learner in appropriate courses that will increase his/her chances of success and program completion. Placement testing is a required step in the admissions process for colleges and universities. Examples of a placement test are the Oxford Placement Test and our own Dynamic Placement Test.
  • Diagnostic test – this is the blood test or an MRI. It is designed to diagnose a particular aspect of a particular area. Now, a diagnostic test can be used to diagnose some particular linguistic aspects. Diagnostic tests in pronunciation, for example, might have the purpose of determining which particular phonological features of the English language are more likely to pose problems and difficulties for a group of learners.
  • Proficiency test – a proficiency test is devised to measure how much of a language someone has learned. It is not linked to any particular course of instruction, but measures the learner’s general level of language mastery. Nowadays most proficiency tests use the CEFR as a common scale of measurement and are thus standardized for worldwide use. Examples of proficiency tests are Cambridge FCE and TOEFL.
  • Achievement Test – this is my daughter’s math test at school. Achievement tests are tests that are limited to particular material covered in a curriculum within a particular time. These are used in the school system because they help the teachers judge the success of their teaching and help them identify the weaknesses of learners.  My daughter is tested on the material covered during the semester and gets a grade. If my daughter gets a poor grade, she needs to study harder. If all the learners get a poor grade, then the teacher should review her methods.

To get back to how tests affect me in my daily life, I need to understand the differences and goals of the different kinds of tests I have just described above. For example, if my daughter takes a math test, I don’t need to see a validity argument to be sure the test was fair. An achievement test simply measures that my daughter learned the material. At most, I could crack open her math book and verify that the test covered the topics listed.

Now, some people like to use proficiency tests and diagnostic tests as placement tests, in order to place a learner in a particular level or section of a language curriculum or school. However, this is not really the proper use. Unlike proficiency and diagnostic tests, a placement test typically includes a sampling of material at a range of levels, and it thereby provides a better indication of the point at which the learner will find a level or class to be neither too easy nor too difficult but to be appropriately challenging.

Similarly, most language acquisition theories see input — reading and listening — as the cornerstone of language development: comprehending what is coming in is the first step. So whereas proficiency tests assess all four skills, placement tests focus on the receptive skills. Bear in mind that for practical reasons the time available for a placement test is generally limited to 30 minutes, and it becomes even more important to emphasize reading and listening so as to put students into the most appropriate group.

‘If the objective of language teaching is effective language learning, then our main concern must be the learning outcome.’ This famous statement from Hans Heinrich Stern tells us that in language learning, we have to consider both sides of the process. The learner needs to be placed in an environment best suited to his/her abilities so as to enhance the potential for learning. This is the purpose of a placement test. The result of the test also provides learners with better information about their strengths and weaknesses, helping them find the starting point of their own personal learning programme.

This guest post is written by Sean McDonald, Test Developer of telc. You can contact Sean at

Sean McDonald, Project Manager English Assessment, telc Language Tests

Sean McDonald, Project Manager English Assessment, telc Language Tests