Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Assessing Students' Oral Proficiency: A Case for Online Testing

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Assessing Students' Oral Proficiency: A Case for Online Testing

Article excerpt


This article reports on the Pittsburgh Public Schools Oral Ratings Assessment for Language Students (PPS ORALS) project, a Title VI Foreign Language Assistance Program grant-funded project to create an online testing software program that makes large-scale oral testing in a world language not only feasible, but also easy to create, administer, and rate. The primary purpose of this article is to present the PPS ORALS assessment model as a valid instrument for determining students' oral proficiency on the ACTFL Oral Proficiency Scale. A second goal of the article is to present ways in which large-scale, districtwide oral proficiency testing at grade 5, grade 8, level 3 high school, and grade 12 can be accomplished feasibly. Finally, the article shares the results of the PPS ORALS over a four-year period and offers implications for the future.

Key words: ACTFL Oral Proficiency Scale, districtwide K-12 assessment, large-scale testing, online assessment, performance assessment, proficiency assessment, rating proficiency

Language: Relevant to all languages


Over the past two decades, the foreign language profession has experienced a paradigm shift in planning and instruction as K-12 programs have begun to change their traditional emphasis on grammar and the textbook to focus on student performance (Bragger & Rice, 1998; Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia, 1999; Pittsburgh Public Schools, Pennsylvania, 2004; Shrum & Glisan, 2005). This new focus has brought with it attention to the attainment of performance-based outcomes, and more recently to standards that define what students should know and be able to do as a result of language study (National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project, 1996, 1999).

For the foreign language education profession, the concept of performance-based teaching has been shaped largely by the work that has been done over the past 25 years in the area of oral proficiency assessment and specifically the Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI), which resulted in the publication of the ACTFL Provisional Proficiency Guidelines (1982) and, more recently, the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines-Speaking (1999) (Liskin-Gasparro, 2003). These speaking guidelines specify what speakers can and cannot do with the language, as measured according to the criteria of the rating scale: global tasks or functions, context and content, accuracy, and text type (see later discussion of these criteria) (Swender, 1999). Because the proficiency guidelines were created primarily for adult speakers of the language, ACTFL developed the ACTFL Performance Guidelines for K-12 Learners (1998) to outline expectations of K-12 learners at the benchmarks of language development labeled Novice Range, Intermediate Range, and Preadvanced Range. Each of these ranges defines learner performance within the three modes of communication (Interpersonal, Interpretive, Presentational) and across the following criteria: comprehensibility comprehension, language control, vocabulary use, communication strategies, and cultural awareness.

As a result of OPI training workshops first conducted in the early 1980s, language educators gained insights regarding the nature of face-to-face communication and the type of impact their own instructional practices may have (and may not have) on the development of students' oral proficiency (Liskin-Gasparro, 2003). Further, the OPI provided an assessment construct that could be applied and adapted to fit classroom testing formats (Gonzalez Pino, 1989; Hadley, 2001). Although the Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century (National Standards, 1999) have broadened the scope of performance-based goals to include cultures and content connections, an overarching goal is the development of proficiency across the three modes of communication.

The progress made in moving toward performance-based or proficiency-oriented instruction (Higgs, 1984) has presented a challenge to K-12 teachers in assessing students' oral proficiency, given the confines of the K-12 classroom and increasing numbers of students in language classes. …

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