French Placement Test
Since 1984, UW system faculty and Wisconsin high school teachers have been collaborating to develop a test for placing incoming students into college French courses. Two tests are now available: language usage and reading comprehension. These tests are available for each UW System campus to use according to its individual needs and resources. Each campus determines the appropriate scores for entry into specific courses. The purpose of this information is to introduce you to the test, describe the rationale behind its creation, and outline future plans for its continued development.
Purposes and Background of the Test
Placement into college courses is the sole purpose of this test. The experienced language teacher will quickly realize that many skills which are taught in the high school language courses are not included in the test. This was by design, as the test is a tool to assist advisors in placing students into the best course in a language sequence. The questions on the test were specifically selected with this single purpose in mind. This means the test is not a measure of everything that is learned in high school language courses. The test was not designed to measure program success or to compare students from one high school with students from another. It should be viewed only as a tool to be used for placing students at the university level.
As a placement instrument, the test has to be easy enough to allow students with only one year of high school French to answer many questions and yet has to be complex enough to measure the skills of students with four or five years of French. Scores have to be precise enough to allow placement into five different levels of university coursework: 1st semester, 2nd semester, 3rd semester, 4th semester, or 5th semester. In addition, the test has to be efficient to score, since thousands of students each year need to have their results promptly reported.
In order to meet these criteria, the writing committee selected a multiple-choice format to measure two different types of language competence: reading comprehension and knowledge of grammatical structure. Both of these sections have been, and continue to be, pilot tested in multiple versions in several Wisconsin high schools and on University of Wisconsin System campuses. This pilot testing allows for improving individual items and helps each campus establish its own placement test cut-off scores. Test scores are often used in combination with other placement criteria, such as number of years of French study, grade received, and when the last French class was taken, to determine actual placement.
General Characteristics of the Test
1. Each selection is to be completed by all students. The expectation is that students who have had one or two years of high school French will answer fewer questions correctly than students who have had three or more years of high school French.
2. All sections are entirely in French (except for the instructions) and consist of multiple choice questions, most with four choices each.
3. The test is scored as number of correct answers, with no penalty for guessing. Each item has only one correct answer. This number correct score is converted to a standard score between 150 and 850 for the purposes of score reporting.
4. The Language Usage and Reading Comprehension Test is designed as a test of skill and not speed. Ample time is allowed to answer questions. Sixty (60) minutes are allowed to complete the Placement Test.
5. The Language Usage and Reading Comprehension total test score has a reliability above .90.
Language Usage and Reading Comprehension Test
The Reading Section
The reading comprehension portion of the test was designed to be a proficiency-based measure of students’ understanding of facts and ideas in context. The reading passages consist of complete and meaningful texts drawn from authentic sources, including newspapers, magazines, advertisements, and short stories. Only minor editing has been done for length or to simplify particularly difficult vocabulary or structures. This portion of the test was designed to stress variety by including a sampling of different topics, functions, situations, styles, level of difficulty, lengths of passages, and types of questions.
Questions were constructed to encourage thinking and intelligent guessing. Some questions require students to understand factual information. Other questions require students to go beyond simple decoding at the sentence level, to skim and scan for general ideas, understand logical development of ideas and sequential ordering of events, analyze and synthesize, make inferences and deductions, and also to interpret point of view and tone. In short, the reading section measures the understanding of written French and the reading skills needed to perform well in university courses.
Because the scope of the reading test is so broad and the items so varied, it is difficult to select one model of a reading item to represent the entire test. The following sample items may be helpful to you in explaining the test to your students.
LA FIN DU CONCORDE?
Je n’ai jamais voyagé en Concorde. Et pourtant, après l’avoir vu pour la première fois en 1973, j’en ai rêvé. A l’époque, les constructeurs franco-britanniques croyaient encore à l’avenir supersonique du transport aérien. Ils avaient l’espoir de remplir un carnet d’une centaine de commandes pour le Concorde. D’un coup d’aile, ils comptaient relier Paris à Rio, Londres à Bahreïn…
Je crains que la tragédie du 25 juillet ne mette fin à mes aspirations de voyager en Concorde. Car cette catastrophe où 114 personnes ont perdu la vie pourrait amener non seulement la fin du Concorde, mais aussi la fin d’une merveilleuse aventure technologique et esthétique.
(Journal Français, Septembre 2000)
1. Depuis quand l’éditorialiste rêve-t-il de voyager en Concorde?
a. Depuis le début de sa construction.
b. Depuis le 25 juillet.
c. Depuis qu’il l’a vu en 1973.
d. Depuis que la ligne Paris-Rio est entrée en service.
2. Quel était l’espoir des constructeurs franco-britanniques?
a. Ils voulaient voyager de Londres à Bahreïn.
b. Ils souhaitaient voir une centaine de commandes.
c. Ils désiraient éviter la catastrophe du 25 juillet.
d. Ils espéraient la fin d’une merveilleuse aventure.
3. Pourquoi la date du 25 juillet marque-t-elle une tragédie?
a. Il n’y a eu qu’une centaine de commandes pour le Concorde.
b. Il y a eu 114 personnes qui sont mortes en Concorde.
c. Le Concorde de Paris à Rio a perdu une aile.
d. Le Concorde a été aspiré le 25 juillet 1973.
4. Quel est le ton de cet éditorial?
a. Il est optimiste.
b. Il est agressif.
c. Il est ironique. d. Il est nostalgique.
The correct answers are: (1) C, (2) B, (3) B, (4) D
Quand j’étais petit je voulais être commissaire de police ou amiral. Mais moi et les études...c’est une autre histoire. En réalité, je pense profondément que si je n’avais pas été chanteur, j’aurais été jardinier pour le contact merveilleux avec la terre. La travailler, c’est pour moi oeuvrer à la fois pour le beau et l’utile. J’aime autant les jardins campagnards que ceux “à la française.” Et je ne fais pas de hiérarchie entre le potager et les arbustes. La tomate est aussi importante que la rose, il suffit simplement que l’une existe à côté de l’autre. Je suis sûr qu’un jour je planterai des chênes dans mon jardin. Les chênes représentent plusieurs générations humaines. Dans ma maison, à Béziers, je bénéficie d’un climat idéal. Pour mes plantations, je dois être aidé par le ciel, c’est vrai!
5. Quel est le métier du narrateur?
a. Commissaire de police
6. Quelle phrase résume le mieux l’attitude du narrateur à l’égard des jardins?
a. Un jardin doit être avant tout utile.
b. Les jardins à la française sont les plus beaux.
c. Les fleurs et les légumes ont une importance égale.
d. C’est uniquement la beauté d’un jardin qui compte.
7. Dans ce contexte, le mot ceux (ligne 5) remplace _____.
a. les campagnards
b. les jardiniers
c. les arbustes
d. les jardins
8. D’après le contexte de l’ensemble de ce texte, le mot potager (ligne 6) veut le plus probablement dire un jardin _____.
a. de légumes
b. de fleurs
c. à la française
d. à la campagne
9. Pourquoi les chênes sont-ils importants pour le narrateur?
a. Ils vivent longtemps.
b. Ils sont faciles à cultiver.
c. Ils ressemblent à des êtres humains.
d. Ils sont l’arbre préféré des rois.
The correct answers are: (5) B, (6) C, (7) D, (8) A, (9) A
The Language Usage Section
The language usage section of the exam consists of two modules: sentence completion and logical rejoinders. The sentence completion module is the more traditional of the two, in which sentences are provided from which one or two words are missing. From four choices students pick the one form that is correct and appropriate to the context of the sentence. Contextual clues are strongly evident, so that items are functionally full and semantically clear. The section tests a variety of morphological and syntactic forms, including adjective and article usage and agreement, verb forms and uses, pronoun forms and uses, expressions for comparison, negation, and interrogation. Some lexical choices are also required with verbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and adverbs. The various test objectives are represented on the sentence completion section of the French test in the following proportions:
Objective Percentage of Test
1. Lexical 32.5
2. Verbs 20.0
3. Pronouns 20.0
4. Syntax 12.5
5. Articles & Adjectives 10.0
6. Relatives & Questions 5.0
The following items are representative of the kind of questions students are asked to answer.
1. Je _____ assez bien Paris, mais je ne _____ pas où habite le Président de la République.
2. En France, beaucoup de gens boivent _____ vin tous les jours.
3. J’ai rencontré Claudine et je _____ invitée à sortir ce soir.
b. la ai
c. lui ai
d. l’y ai
4. Réflection d’un touriste: _____ Bordeaux les enfants parlent français!
5. Je voudrais que vous _____ à la maison avant minuit.
6. X: Quand vas-tu voir tes amis de Grenoble?
Y: Je vais dîner avec _____ ce soir.
7. Picasso est un peintre _____ nous admirons beaucoup.
b. à qui
8. Ah, voilà les papiers de la voiture! _____ , s’il te plaît.
a. Me les donne
d. Donne les à moi
9. Ce matin, mon réveil n’a pas sonné et _____ me dépêcher pour arriver à l’heure au bureau.
a. je doive
b. je dois
c. j’aurai dû
d. j’ai dû
10. Expliquez-moi ce _____ arrive à la fin de ce film.
11. _____ n’est pas toujours agréable.
a. De voyager
d. En voyageant
The correct answers are: (1) C, (2) C, (3) A, (4) A, (5) A, (6) D, (7) A, (8) C, (9) D, (10) C, (11) B
Logical Rejoinder Module
The logical rejoinder module is a brand new section on the French Placement Test. Rejoinder items aim to capture learners’ ability beyond formal accuracy. They assess learners’ understanding of what is situationally appropriate and thereby emphasize a functional and fuller definition of communication. Learners select the most appropriate response from four formally correct options. They judge the appropriateness of the four rejoinders relative to the situational criteria implied in the prompt. Criteria relate to the relationship between speakers, features of speech acts (apologies, compliments, requests, congratulations, etc.), and scripted conventions of language use in certain common and recurring speech events, such as wishing a happy birthday, ordering in a restaurant, taking one’s leave, etc.
Carefully read the following brief exchanges. Then, from the given lists, select the choice that most logically completes the exchange.
1. X: Qu'est-ce que tu préfères, le café ou le thé?
a. Je veux bien.
b. C'est ça!
c. Ca m'est égal.
d. Moi non plus.
The correct answer is C.
Key Factors Related to Placement Scores
Since each institution determines its own placement procedures, it is difficult to generalize about what placements result from this test. Nonetheless, two key factors have emerged in our use of this instrument.
One of the most important factors related to placement scores is number of years studying French. Not surprisingly, students’ scores on the placement test are in direct relationship to the number of French courses they took in middle and high school: the more French courses taken, the higher the placement. We have also noticed that the assumed high school/college equivalence may be somewhat different from what we expected in the past. Generally speaking, it appears that three years of high school French are roughly equivalent to one year (two semesters) of college study.
Another crucial factor that has emerged from the pilot studies conducted to develop this test is that time away from studying French appears to have detrimental consequences. Our statistics show that students who take French in the senior year of high school generally place higher than students who do not take French in their senior year, even when both groups have studied French for the same number of years.
These two factors support the recommendation that students spend as many years as possible in French courses and that, once begun, their study should not be interrupted until the time when they have decided that no more course work in college will be needed.
How Teachers Can Help Students Prepare for the Test
We do not advise that teachers offer special sessions, materials or practice to prepare students specifically for the placement test. Since the purpose of the placement test is to provide a realistic measure of where students should be placed to begin their study of French in college courses, it would do a disservice to students to help them inflate their scores by “teaching” them the test. This is, of course, why all actual test material is confidential.
It may be useful, however, to help students develop the skills measured on the test, as part of your regular curriculum. We hope that this placement test, along with the DPI curriculum guidelines for foreign language testing, will provide impetus toward more communicative and proficiency-based teaching.
The following suggestions are presented as ideas to use in the classroom to help students do well both on the placement test and in their subsequent college coursework.
1. Use authentic texts in class, drawn from a variety of sources such as newspapers, magazines, advertisements, short stories, and poems.
2. Tell students stories in French and work with audio and video recordings, thereby including regular and diverse listening activities in classroom instruction. Above all, conduct your class in French as much as possible.
3. Create reading and listening exercises that look beyond factual information to general understanding, analysis, synthesis and basic interpretation.
4. Encourage expansive vocabulary building through independent assignments as well as course work.
5. Maintain some focused study of grammar, but do not let it take up so much time that functional language use in reading, listening, writing and speaking is neglected.
You may have to teach less grammar, as the DPI Guide suggests, but concentrate on helping students to master it well.
6. Challenge and build students’ intellectual approach to thinking so that they question, guess intelligently, and make logical inferences and conclusions.
7. Do not let the placement test, or any other test, overshadow what you know to be good, sound teaching for your students. A good test will measure knowledge and skills no matter how they are attained. We believe that this placement test is such an examination.
Advising Students on Preparing for the Test
As already stated, the best preparation is solid work in as many French courses as possible continuing through senior year. Since both sections are of a global nature, specific preparation beyond course work is not required. For those interested, however, here are some suggestions to help students expand their French study beyond the classroom and to maintain their language skills over the summer.
1. Read French newspapers, periodicals, and short stories of your choice for enjoyment, for general meaning, and to expand your vocabulary.
2. Listen to audio and videotape materials, guessing at general meaning and recalling as many specific details as possible. Consider the expressed attitude of all speakers, why they say what they do, and the consequences of their remarks.
3. Review your mistakes on grammar and vocabulary worksheets and tests from your past French classes, consulting your textbooks to clarify points you do not understand.
4. As for taking the test itself, be sure you are well-rested the night before and try to remain as relaxed as possible during the test. We intend that the experience be an enjoyable, yet challenging one for you. Remember that all students are not expected to answer all items correctly. Intelligent guessing will most likely help you achieve a higher score.
Future Directions of the Test
The two sections will continually be reviewed and analyzed to be sure the material is current and meaningfully related to the curricula in the introductory French courses around the UW System. We will also be continually adding new questions to a growing bank of questions now being written. In addition, we will be trying to develop new and different kinds of question formats so the test remains current with the best practices in language testing and also retains its usefulness for placing students into our courses. The new logical rejoinder module is a good example of how we are constantly looking to new types of items to help us gain a more complete picture of students’preparedness to transition to college-level French. Data on how each question functions under actual testing conditions has been and will continue to be used to replace items that are no longer functioning well.
Although we subscribe to the philosophy that listening, writing and speaking are essential components to French proficiency, it is unlikely that they will become integral parts of the French Placement Test because the cost in time and money for administering and scoring such sections would be exorbitant. Also, because these components are taught and assessed in such dramatically different ways at both the high school and post-secondary levels, our research has found that listening, speaking, and writing tests do not help improve college placement. However, because these skills are vital to success in the language, UW instructors in the introductory French sequence routinely assess their students with respect to the full compliment of skills during the first week of classes, and advise their students to move up or down a course, as appropriate.