13 Useful Terms To Know About The Language Industry

I have spent the past 13 years in the language testing industry.  With the merger of webCAPE and TrueNorth, I'm even more excited about the future of language testing and development. The Emmersion team has impressive resources that will advance the industry of language learning to new levels. Rather than write a soliloquy of my journey that would mostly serve myself; I thought, instead, I would write a post that hopefully has some utility for those that might read it.

When I first entered the industry of language assessment testing, I had very little knowledge about the things that mattered. Things such as: validation, reliability, machine learning, adaptive algorithms, etc. My background was in information technology and marketing. While I can work my way around the diction of language proficiency tests, I have found there is still a lot of vocabulary that is commonly misused in the industry. Therefore, I have decided this post might serve as a reference, a language testing dictionary, to help those of us who still occasionally get it wrong. 

1. High-stakes testing

High-stakes testing, or a high-stake test is an assessment used to make important or impactful decisions about the test taker.  Generally, these tests are given with a proctor (a test supervisor) because of the impact/affect the results of the test can have on the test taker. Example of a high-sakes test is the TOEFL test used for college entrance in the United States. Sometimes high-stakes tests are incorrectly called standardized tests.

2. Standardized test (testing)

A standardized test is one that asks the exact same questions for every test taker. It is also graded (scored) in a consistent (and hopefully, unbiased) manner. Ideally, standardized tests are also given under very similar conditions (time, location, instructions). A standardized test can be a high-stakes test but doesn’t always have to be.

3. Non-standardized Test (testing)

A non-standardized test is one that does not follow the strict adherence to keeping as many outside variables consistent that standardized testing requires.  In non-standardized testing one or more of the following might occur: different tests (questions) are given to different individuals, different conditions (time, location, instructions), or the test is evaluated differently. For example, if I want to test your speaking ability and to do so we sit down and have an open conversation that progressively gets harder until I feel you are at your linguistic limit, which is a non-standardized way of testing.

4. Low-stakes testing

A low-stakes test refers to the impact the test has on the test taker. A low stakes assessment typically does not have a graded impact on the test taker. The key element of low stakes testing is that it is designed to understand a specific situation then it is to evaluate a situation. For example, teachers will provide pre-tests to help students know what their deficiencies are before taking a high-stakes test.

5. Important note

I’m not going to dive into the debate of testing theory, testing practices, and fairness in this blog. There is a lot of research on the subject. Another blog post of mine does briefly talk about the pros/cons of high-stakes and low-stakes but is nowhere exhaustive.

6. Proficiency

Language proficiency is a measurement of language mastery. Proficiency is synonymous with language skill; which is usually measured by four areas: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Proficiency is measured as “skill level” – how much you know and can use the language. Proficiency is, at times, incorrectly interchanged with fluency. Proficiency is often tied to standardized scores from organizations such as ACTFL and CEFR.

7. Fluency

The term ‘fluent’ is, in fact, a Latin word meaning “flowing.” Fluency refers to the speed or flow or smoothness at which a speaker can effectuate language speech. While you may have high proficiency (large vocabulary, a strong understanding of grammar, and advanced reading) you might still have terrible fluency because it is difficult for you to get the words out in a conversational flow.

8. Pronunciation

Pronunciation is the act of producing the sounds of speech, including articulation, stress, and intonation, often with reference to some standard of correctness or acceptability (Dictionary.com) Pronunciation can vary based on geographic locations; therefore, standardization can be difficult.  Pronunciation is important because it helps language learners to understand phonetic rules and tendencies; which in turn, can help with the process of new vocabulary.

9. Placement

Language placement tests help determine the course in which a language learner should continue their language study. Placement exams, such as webCAPE are adaptive placement exams—that is, the exam will progressively get harder or easier depending on the correct/incorrect response given by the test-taker. Placement exams help educational organizations homogenize their classes and provide a better educational experience to their language learners.

10. Diagnostic

A language diagnostic test is designed to identify (diagnose) some particular linguistic characteristics.  Diagnostic tests tend to be comprehensive and extensive. Proper design of diagnostic testing will provide language learners (and educators) with specific language strengths and weaknesses. A diagnostic will provide specific details of language ability, as opposed to a proficiency score which typically provides a score tied to a set of standards.

11. Adaptive

Adaptive testing is concerned with distinguishing how a response for an item is influenced by error factors and true ability. Adaptive tests are designed to increase and decrease in difficulty based on the responses of the test-taker. Adaptive testing provides candidates with the best-matched results based on their individual skills/level. Quality adaptive testing will provide enough questions at a specific level to remove as much ambiguity and guessing as possible.

12. Certificate testing

Some language tests are designed to provide a certificate of proficiency or completion. These tests are typically standardized to assess the language skills of secondary/foreign languages. Some certificate tests are organized through international boards, while others are specific to business purposes.

13. Industry-specific language testing (hospitality, tourism, etc.)

Language testing can be designed to target a specific industry or set of vocabulary. While it is ideal to test language proficiency across a general set of skills, there are times when advanced vocabulary is needed in an industry. For example, a specific vocabulary would be needed for a nurse using medical terms. Some companies will require additional proficiency in these terms before accepting talent.


Common language proficiency tests and standards:

1. TOEFL : Test of English as a Foreign Language

2. TOEIC – Test of English for International Communication

3. Avant STAMP – English (standards-based proficiency)

4. CEFR – Common European Framework of Reference (language ability scale)

5. ACTFL – American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (language ability scale)

6. TrueNorth Test – Language Speaking and Proficiency truenorthtest.com 

7.WebCAPE— Language Placement Test

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