Language proficiency assessment can seem complex or even mysterious – a black box that just spits out a score. However, it isn’t that complicated once you get familiarized with a few basic concepts. We describe some of these basic concepts in the next few blog entries. 

Standards-Based (or Criterion-based) vs Norms-Based (or Norm-Referenced)

Today, most proficiency assessments are standards-based, meaning that the test measures what test-takers can do against a set of fixed standards. Avant STAMP (STAndards-based Measure of Proficiency) assessments use standards that are aligned with the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines. The world language standards for virtually all of the states in the US describe proficiency levels based on the ACTFL Guidelines. Often the standards are operationalized by testing organizations into benchmarks or rubrics. Avant has done this by adding some granularity to these standards to make it possible to use them to score learner responses to test questions. Here are the Benchmarks and Rubrics for Avant STAMP. Other standards-based language tests use a rubric as well to identify specific standards. Here for example, are the rubrics for the AP Spanish Language and Culture assessments.

Norm-based tests measure how students perform against other learners taking the same test. The SAT and ACT are examples of norm-referenced tests. With the large number of test-takers in these tests and the years of experience of the testing companies who develop and deliver these tests, the results are quite consistent and very accurate measures of test taker skills.

In the classroom, both standards-based and norm-referenced tests are used. Generally, however, teacher-developed tests in class are norm-referenced and often graded on a curve. This provides a distribution of grades that can be evenly spread across the class. What this approach can often result in, however, is a distortion of the actual level of skill of some learners. For example, if all the test takers scored between 60 and 75, some students would likely receive A’s even though they hadn’t demonstrated a high level of mastery.

Why Standards-Based Tests Have An Advantage

The advantage of standards-based tests over norm-based tests in the classroom is that learners receive a score that measures their skills in absolute terms – can they do what the standards describe or not. In a standards-based classroom test, if learners all scored above 90 on a test based on a set of agreed upon goals linked to standards, all the students would receive an A. if they all scored in the 60’s they would all receive a D. Using a truly standards-based grading system in the classroom may seem uncomfortable, but we believe it is the best way to encourage effective language learning.

ACTFL Language Proficiency Levels – The Standard We Are Aligned With

  • Distinguished: At the Distinguished proficiency level an individual can communicate highly complex concepts and global issues in a culturally appropriate manner. They are educated, articulate and can customize their language to a situation and audience.
  • Superior: At the Superior proficiency level an individual is fully participatory and communicates with accuracy and fluency. An individual at a superior level can extensively discuss abstract topics with supporting opinions and structured arguments.
  • Advanced: At the Advanced proficiency level an individual can narrate and describe in past, present, and future time frames. They can communicate in paragraphs on complex situations or topics and can handle unexpected complications with grammatical accuracy and fluency.
  • Intermediate: At the Intermediate proficiency level an individual can create original strings of sentences by recombining learned material. They can ask and answer questions about familiar topics as well as handle simple transactions.
  • Novice: At the Novice proficiency level an individual is limited to communicating with short memorized phrases at the word level. It may be difficult for novice language learners to communicate with native speakers unaccustomed to non-native language.

Avant delivered the first online, adaptive, standards-based language proficiency test in the world. We have always believed that tests should bring out the best in learners by showing what they CAN do, not what they can’t.  We believe that this approach benefits both the learner and educator in powerful ways.

About Avant Assessment

Avant’s mission is to improve the teaching and learning of language in the US and around the world through effective language proficiency testing and professional development. Our products are not only for educators but also for business and government agencies that see the significant positive impact from bilingual team members.

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