Language assessment

Language assessment or language testing is a field of study under the umbrella of applied linguistics. Its main focus is the assessment of first, second or other language in the school, college, or university context; assessment of language use in the workplace; and assessment of language in the immigration, citizenship, and asylum contexts.[1] The assessment may include listening, speaking, reading, writing, an integration of two or more of these skills, or other constructs of language ability. Equal weight may be placed on knowledge (understanding how the language works theoretically) and proficiency (ability to use the language practically), or greater weight may be given to one aspect or the other.[2]


The earliest works in language assessment in the United States date back to the 1950s to the pioneering studies and test created by Robert Lado and David Harris. The earliest large scale assessments in the United States were referred to as the Michigan Tests, developed by the English Language Institute at the University of Michigan, now known as CaMLA, and the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) developed by Educational Testing Service (ETS), Princeton, New Jersey.

The English Language Institute at the University of Michigan (CaMLA) was established in 1941 and was the first of its kind in the United States. Charles Fries, Director of ELI, and Robert Lado, Director of Testing at ELI, were determined to put foreign language teaching and testing on a "scientific" footing. The first test launched in 1946 was the Lado Test of Aural Comprehension. Approximately 10 years later, a full suite of tests had been assembled: "an English language test battery", which was administered to incoming foreign students at Michigan and other universities. Today this is known at the Michigan English Language Assessment Battery (MELAB). In 1953, the ELI also developed the ECPE (Examination for the Certificate of Proficiency in English) exam, under contract to the United States Information Agency, for use abroad.[3]

TOEFL was launched in 1961 and was designed to assess the English language ability of students applying for admission to U.S. and Canadian colleges and universities. This test, which is used widely around the world, is still in use although it is now only available in the internet-based format (now called the TOEFL iBT[4]).

Many tests from other companies, universities and agencies compete for this market: iTEP (International Test of English Proficiency), the Canadian English Language Proficiency Index Program (CELPIP) Test, the Pearson Language Test's Pearson Test of English (PTE), CaMLA assessments including the Michigan English Language Assessment Battery (MELAB) and Cambridge English Language Assessment, the British Council and the Australian IDP's International English Language Testing System (IELTS). In the United States, non-profit and other organizations such as the Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington, D.C. and Language Testing International, White Plains, NY have developed language tests that are used by many public and private agencies. Many universities too, like the University of California, Los Angeles, Teachers College, Columbia University, and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, have developed English (and other) language tests to assess the abilities of their students and teaching assistants. These language assessments are generally known as proficiency or achievement assessments. Other modern English language tests developed include The General English Proficiency Test (GEPT) in Taiwan, the College English Test in China, and the STEP Eiken in Japan. New technology has also made a presence in the field: Versant's English and Dutch assessments use phone technology to record the speaking and automated scoring of their speaking tests, and the ETS is currently experimenting with automated scoring of their writing tests.


The International Language Testing Association (ILTA) is one of the many organizations that organizes conferences, workshops, and a public forum for the discussion of important matters. ILTA's major annual conference is the Language Testing Research Colloquium. ILTA's Lifetime Achievement Award winners include: Carol Chapelle (USA), Alan Davies (UK), Lyle Bachman (USA), Bernard Spolsky (Israel), John Clark (USA), Charles Alderson (UK) and Elana Shohamy (Israel).

Educational Testing Service, Princeton, New Jersey, the home of the TOEFL, offers an annual outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award in Second or Foreign Language and the University of Cambridge, UK, also offers an annual outstanding master's degree Award in second language testing. In Europe, there are two organizations: the Association of Language Testers of Europe (ALTE) and the European Association for Language Testing and Assessment (EALTA). All of these associations have developed Codes of Ethics and Practice that all language assessment professionals are expected to adhere to.

Annual conferences

There are many annual conferences on general or specific topics. Among the most important conferences is ILTA's official conference: the Language Testing Research Colloquium (LTRC), which has been held every year since 1978. In the last few years, it has been held in different parts of the world: Temecula, California, USA (2004); Ottawa, Canada (2005); Melbourne, Australia (2006); Barcelona, Spain (2007); Hangzhou, China (2008), and Denver, Colorado (2009), Cambridge, UK (2010), Ann Arbor, Michigan (2011), Princeton, New Jersey (2012), and Seoul, South Korea (2013).

ALTE's international conferences are held in different cities in Europe: Barcelona, Spain (2002); Berlin, Germany (2005); Cambridge, UK (2008) with regional conferences in Perugia, Prague, Budapest, Sofia, and Lisbon. Similarly, there are regional meetings in China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. International conference themes have included supporting the European Year of Languages (2001), the impact of multilingualism (2005), the wider social and educational impact of assessment (2008) and the role of language frameworks (2011). Selected conference papers have been published through the Studies in Language Testing (SiLT) volumes.


There are two premier journals in the field: Language Assessment Quarterly (published by Routledge/Taylor & Francis) currently edited by James E. Purpura and Language Testing (published by Sage Publications) currently edited by Glenn Fulcher and April Ginther that publishes major findings from researchers. Both these journals are indexed in Thompson's SSCI list. Other journals that publish articles from the field include Applied Linguistics, Language Learning, TESOL Quarterly, Assessing Writing, and System. Some of these journals have special issue volumes on Ethics in language assessment, structural equation modeling, language assessment in Asia, Classroom assessment, etc. and commentaries, brief reports, and book and test reviews.

The field has exploded in the last twenty years in terms of textbooks and research publications. The most popular books include: Lyle Bachman's Fundamental considerations in language testing, and Statistical Analyses for Language Assessment, Lyle Bachman and Adrian Palmer's Language Testing in Practice and Language Assessment in Practice,' Glenn Fulcher and Fred Davidson's 'Language Testing and Assessment: An Advanced Resource Book', Charles Alderson's 'Assessing Reading, John Read's Assessing Vocabulary, James Purpura's Assessing Grammar, Gary Buck's Assessing Listening, Sara Weigle's Assessing Writing,' Glenn Fulcher's 'Practical Language Testing' and 'Testing Second Language Speaking'. Edited volumes include: Alister Cumming's Validation in Language Testing, Antony John Kunnan's Validation in Language Assessment, and Fairness in Language Assessment, and the 'Routledge Handbook of Language Testing', edited by Glenn Fulcher and Fred Davidson.

The most popular book series are Michael Milanovic, Cyril Weir, and Lynda Taylor's Studies in Language Testing (SiLT) series, and Lyle Bachman and Charles Alderson's Cambridge Language Assessment Series.


Language assessment or language testing courses are taught as required or elective courses in many graduate and doctoral programs, particularly in the subjects of applied linguistics, English for Speakers of Other Languages, English as a second or foreign language, or educational linguistics. These programs are known as MA or PhD programs in Applied Linguistics, Educational Linguistics, TESOL, TEFL, or TESL. The focus of most courses is on test development, psychometric qualities of tests, validity, reliability and fairness of tests, and classical true score measurement theory. Additional courses focus on item response theory, factor analysis, structural equation modeling, G theory, latent growth modeling, qualitative analysis of test performance data such as conversation and discourse analysis, and politics and language policy issues.

Universities that have regular courses and programs that focus on language assessment at the Ph.D. level include University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, University of Hawai'i, Manoa, Teachers College, Columbia University, Penn State University, Georgia State University, Northern Arizona University, McGill University, University of Toronto, Lancaster University (UK), University of Leicester, University of Bristol, University of Cambridge, University of Bedfordshire, and Guangdong University of Foreign Studies (China); at the MA level include Lancaster University, University of Leicester, California State Universities at Fullerton, Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Jose, and San Francisco.


  1. Hornberger, Nancy H.; Shohamy, Elana (2008). Encyclopedia of Language and Education, Volume 7: Language Testing and Assessment. Berlin: Springer. ISBN 0-387-32875-0.
  2. APEC Human Resources Development Working Group
  3. Swales, J. 2013, Other Floors, Other Voices: A Textography of A Small University Building,
  4. About the TOEFL iBT Test Retrieved 23 November 2010

External links

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