English Language Achievement VS. Proficiency Tests

Definition & Meaning

“Achievement” is defined as how well students have learned or what they are expected to know. On the other hand, “proficiency” is the ability to do something very well.

Take for example a driver’s test, the paper and pencil questions on the knowledge related to driving and traffic rules represents the achievement test, while a proficiency test determines how well the person can drive the car.

An achievement test measures knowledge of specific information (what a person knows) while a proficiency test measures what an individual can do with what he or she knows.

In the field of language learning, there are two types of tests that are commonly used in educational institutions. The first type is the achievement test. This is used at the end of specific period, to evaluate how much students have learned about a subject. The other commonly used test is the proficiency test. This kind of test measures students’ overall skill in a language and is not directly related to a particular course or period.

In other words, achievement test evaluates  learners’ understanding of a specific course or study programme and measures how much they have learnt in a specific time which can be, e.g., at the end of a chapter, or at the end of a course, etc to specify their weak points or strengths. In this case, the learners who have finished units 1 – 4 of a coursebook can be given an achievement test based on what they have seen in these units. The test is taken from the student’s book and the activity book.

However, proficiency tests measure how much learners are able to use the knowledge or skills they have learnt in real time situation(s) and these tests evaluate the learners’ level of knowledge or skills on a specific area. In other words, the proficiency test is an evaluation of how well a person can use language to communicate in real life. It refers to one’s ability to use language for real-world purposes to accomplish real-world linguistic tasks across a wide range of topics and settings.

Purposes of Each Kind.

Achievement tests have educational and diagnostic purposes that they can help the teacher and the learner to investigate which area(s) the learner needs to improve.

In many educational systems throughout the world students take regular achievement tests and are required to pass them in order to move to a higher level or graduate from an educational institution. Achievement tests can have many additional functions aside from evaluation. Learners can for example develop an action plan for further study based on the results of an achievement test.

On the other side, a proficiency test can have the following purposes:

  • Predict a learner’s ability to complete a course or take an exam.
  • Evaluate progress in attaining and acquiring the language.
  • Make it easy for teachers to take placement decisions for students.
  • Measure students’ ability of using the language.
  • Specify to what extent students are proficient in different language skills.

In brief and simply stated, each kind has a role in language learning, proficiency test is measuring the ability of learners to use the language to communicate in the real world and in the real-world situations, and achievement test is  measuring students’ ability to repeat language elements that have been taught and mastered at some level.

When to Use Each Kind.

Language learners at the novice level need to focus on memorizing vocabulary and the basic building blocks of language so achievement exercises/tests are particularly appropriate and important at this level.

As learners advance and accumulate more building blocks of language, classroom exercises and tests must encourage learners’ practice of familiar topics in unexpected and real-world situations. Gradually, tests should be based on topics that are unplanned and potentially unpracticed, but that are appropriate for learners’ level.

Memorization is important, but it is only part of the picture. Without beginning to apply those memorized words and phrases in real-life situations, learners will not learn how to respond to the unexpected situations they will experience in the real world. Instead they will be fearful of any situation in which they do not know every single word. This fear is the experience that many learners have in traditional classrooms that focus only on memorizing and reciting words and structures.

So, achievement tests are important, but they should not be always used  or used excessively. If it happens, it can produce learners who are incapable of real-world use of the language elements they have learned in class.


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