Placement vs Proficiency Exams

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There is Often Confusion When it Comes to Understanding the Difference Between Language Proficiency Exams and Language Placement Exams.

Every year, language instructors are faced with the task of assessing web-based placement tests for the purpose of enrolling incoming students into courses that are suitable for their knowledge of the language being tested. (Long, 149) In this post, we cover the difference between a proficiency and placement exams and why Perpetual Technology Group offers language placement testing over other types of exams.

What is the difference between proficiency exams and placement exams?

While there is an academic definition that outlines the difference between language proficiency tests and language placement tests, the lines between the two tend to be blurred in the industry.  That is, in the business world the terms placement and proficiency are often used intertwined and substituted one for another.

The purpose of a language proficiency test is: to test global competence in a language. It will test the overall ability (or competency) the individual has in a language and are often standardized. There are many proficiency language standards for proficiency exams, such as ACTFL and CEF.

The purpose of a language placement test is: to place an individual into a particular level or section of a language school, business school, or skill level. An individual will be placed into a group that is neither too difficult or too easy for their skill or proficiency level. Language placement tests should not be ignored when assessing reliability and validity as they are an effective testing. (Long, 151)

Can you use a language proficiency test as a language placement exam?

It depends if the calibration of the test has been completed to validate the exams effectiveness to be used for something other than its original design. The language exam may also need to change its algorithm and content. Most of the time, exams are developed for a specific reason and purpose and are tested and validated for that design. Only with rigorous testing and development can we see an exam expand into both realms.

Are there other language exam types?

In addition to placement tests and proficiency tests there are diagnostic tests, achievement exams and adaptive tests. These other types of tests have their own purpose and benefits.

Is an adaptive test better than a standard exam?

It can be depending on how it is built. Computer Adaptive Tests (CAT) are a form of computer-based exams that adapt to the level of the individual taking the test. Sometimes it is called tailored-testing. Adaptive exams will change the questions based on the results of previously selected questions. Advantages of a computer adaptive exam:

  • Language Adaptive tests provide uniformly precise scores
  • Language Adaptive exams typically shorten the exam process by 30% to 60%
  • Language adaptive tests can be shortened by 50% and still maintain a high level of precision (Weiss, 1984)
  • Language Adaptive tests give results immediately upon completion of the test
  • Language Adaptive exams reduce testing fatigue and boredom

The most important aspect of language testing is to make sure you have an exam that is validated and calibrated. Using the right exam for the right purpose will provide the greatest level of accuracy and the results you can use. We offer WebCAPE as an adaptive language placement exam. Trusted for over 20 years and used by over 600 institutions, WebCAPE is the standard in language placement. At PTG, we are happy to help you navigate the language testing world. Do not hesitate to contact us with any questions.


Long, A. Y., Shin, S., Geeslin, K., & Willis, E. W. (2018). Does the Test Work? Evaluating a Web-Based Language Placement Test. Language Learning & Technology, 22(1), 137-156.

Weiss, D. J.; Kingsbury, G. G. (1984). “Application of computerized adaptive testing to educational problems”. Journal of Educational Measurement. 21: 361–375.

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