German 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 German courses.  The current version of the test comprises of two modules:  Language Usage and Reading Comprehension.  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.

Follow this link for a German Practice Placement Test


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 that 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 German to answer many questions and yet has to be complex enough to measure the skills of students with four or five years of German.  Scores have to be precise enough to allow placement into five different levels of university coursework:  1st semester, 2nd semester, 3rd semester, 4th semester, 5th semester, or third year (Madison does not distinguish between 5th and 6th 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 language competence on two different sections of the test:  reading comprehension and  language usage (a mixture of grammar and lexical forms as well as phrases that are appropriate or required in certain contexts).  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 German study, grade received, and when the last German class was taken, to determine actual placement.

General Characteristics of the Test

1.     Both sections of the test are to be completed by all students.  The expectation is that students who have had one or two years of high school German will answer fewer ques­tions correctly than students who have had three or more years of high school German.

2.     The test is nearly all in German and consists of multiple ­choice questions with four choices each. Instructions are in English as are select questions that – if asked in German – would give away the answer.

3.     The test is scored as number of correct answers, with no penalty for guessing.  Each item has only one acceptable answer.  This number correct score is converted to a standard score between 150 and 850 for the purposes of score reporting.

4.     The German Placement 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 entire test.

5.     The German Placement Test total test score has a reliability coefficient of above .90.

Language Usage and Reading Comprehension Test

The Reading Comprehension Section

The reading comprehension section of the test was designed to measure students' understand­ing of plot & character, central and supporting arguments, audience, text structure and topic in the contexts of reports, magazine articles, short stories, anecdotes, letters, and brief dialogues.  The reading passages consist of complete texts drawn from authentic sources.  Any editing was done primarily to shorten texts that were felt to be unnecessarily long for purposes of a placement test.

The reading section is designed to include the kinds of skills that students will need to perform well in university-level German courses.  A list and description of the reading comprehension objectives, as represented in placement test items, are given below:

Respondents have to discriminate among multiple-choice answers, each of which - in principle - could refer to text content. Typically, distractors in such items are verbatim citations (phrases or words) from the text, to make (inaccurate) associations seem more likely.

Respondents have to identify the correct relationship between two pieces of information and derive the correct answer based on this comparison. Comparisons in this category are meaning based and will probably require judgment based on commonly-shared criteria. A sample question may ask which of two units is more attractive, polite, preferable, etc.

        Numerical Comparison
Respondents have to first identify quantitative information in the text and then, based on clues from the text and the gist of the question, determine which type of calculation (multiplication, division, addition, subtraction, fractions or percentages) is appropriate.  The required calculations should be basic and not test the mathematical skills of readers. The multiple-choice items should present clearly different options. The correct result should be easily identifiable once the reader has determined the relevant numbers in the text and the correct type of calculation.

Respondents have to abstract information from the text and infer a larger concept, such as a conclusion, a summary, or a likely interpretation.

        Vocabulary in Context
Respondents have to guess or identify the meaning of a word or phrase from the text based on contextual clues.  Targeted words or phrases will be unknown to most readers prior to exposure to the text.  The goal is to test the ability to infer meaning from context, not to gauge vocabulary knowledge.

        Grammar in Context
               Respondents are asked to identify grammatical forms in the text according to their
               communicative function or distinguishing features.

Passage One


Karriere:  Frau in der Falle

Frauen haben besonders gute Chancen, in die Führung eines Unternehmens aufzurücken,
wenn es der Firma schlecht geht.  Das fand der britische Sozialpsychologe Alex Haslam
von der Universität Exeter bei einer Untersuchung der Personalpolitik in den 100 größten
Firmen Großbritaniens heraus: Zeigen die Wirtschaftsdaten ins Minus, steigt
die Neigung, in der Not eine Frau in die Verantwortung zu heben.  Damit haben Frauen
gleichzeitig ein ungleich höheres Risiko zu scheitern als Männer, sagt Haslam.  Ein
krisengeschütteltes Unternehmen steht wiederum häufiger in den Medien – und die
Chefinnen werden öffentlich für Managementfehler kritisiert, die noch vor ihrer Zeit
begangen wurden.  Dieser Effekt war auch der Auslöser für Haslams Untersuchung
gewesen.  Im vergangenen Jahr hatte eine andere Studie der Universität Cranfield nahe
gelegt, Unternehmen mit hohem Frauenanteil in der Führung hätten auch schlechtere
                                                                                                            (Der Spiegel 40, 2004)

1.     Der britische Sozialpsychologe Haslam schreibt über Frauen, die
        a.     schlechte Wirtschaftsdaten untersuchen.
        b.    Managementfehler kritisieren.
        c.     in den Medien arbeiten.
        d.    aufrücken, wenn es der Firma schlecht geht.


2.     Das Wort scheitern bedeutet auf Englisch
        a.     to scream.
        b.    to take.
        c.     to fail.
        d.    to succeed.


3.     Frauen bekommen oft Führungspositionen, wenn sie
        a.     Managementfehler machen.
        b.    schlechte Personalpolitik machen.
        c.     schlechtgeführte Firmen übernehmen.
        d.    in den Medien stehen.


4.     In die Verantwortung heben heißt im Text
        a.     schlechte Wirtschaftsdaten akzeptieren.
        b.    in eine wichtige Position bringen.
        c.     eine Studie unternehmen.
        d.    Medien kritisieren.


The correct answers are: (1) D, (2) C, (3) C, (4) B

Passage Two

Harvard-Wissenschaftler untersuchten und befragten 100-jährige Menschen. Keiner hatte besonderen Wert auf gesunde Ernährung oder Fitness gelegt, aber jeder beschrieb sich als humorvoll und optimistisch. Über den Zusammenhang von Streit und Gesundheit forschten Wissenschaftler im benachbarten New York. Das deutliche Ergebnis zeigt: Patienten, die angeben, besonders häufig von ihren Partnern kritisiert zu werden, waren auch gesundheitlich nicht so fit. Außerdem bewegten sie sich weniger, aßen ungesünder und rauchten mehr als Menschen, die ihre Beziehung als harmonischbezeichneten.

5.     Aus diesem Artikel erfährt man, dass man so alt werden kann:
        a.     durch Sport
        b.    durch Vitamine
        c.     durch positive Emotionen
        d.    durch ein wissenschaftliches Studium


6.     Wenn mein Partner mich selten kritisiert,
        a.     leidet meine Beziehung.
        b.    raucht mein Partner mehr.
        c.     muss ich ihn häufiger kritisieren.
        d.    hilft das meiner Gesundheit.


7.     Es scheint, als ob
        a.     Menschen in New York mehr streiten würden.
        b.    Gefühle den Körper beeinflussen könnten.
        c.     Menschen mit zunehmendem Alter humorvoller würden.
        d.    gesunde Ernährung und Fitness am wichtigsten wären.


8.     In diesem Kontext heißt bezeichneten auf Englisch
        a.     characterized.
        b.    showed.
        c.     drew.
        d.    signed.


The correct answers are: (5) C, (6) D, (7) B, (8) A


The Language Usage Section


The language usage section features six different item categories, each representing a different test objective.  The test objectives comprise issues of verb-related features, nominal morphology, word order, idiomatic lexico-grammatical matters (e.g., the selection of prepositions or context-appropriate verbs), and pragmatics (socio-cultural aspects of appropriateness).  In all items, regardless of test objective, students encounter sentences from which words or phrases are missing or which are scrambled in different ways.  Students pick the one choice of four 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 various test objectives are represented on the language usage section in the following proportions:


Objective (percentage of test)

Verbs: Present Tense (10%)

The conjugation of verbs in present tense, especially for irregular verbs (e.g., sehen, tragen…), modal verbs, “special” verbs, such as wissen, sein, or haben; and verbs with separable prefixes (some overlap with the category SENTENCES).  This category also includes imperative forms.  The Committee has also, on occasion, included the distinction between formal and informal address (i.e., Sie, du, ihr). 

Verbs: Other Tenses (25%)

All tenses besides the present tense; also includes passive forms and subjunctives.

Nominal Phrases (30%)

Everything to do with cases, number, and gender: definite and indefinite articles; prepositional phrases; personal pronouns; possessives; and adjective endings, including those related to comparative and superlative.

Sentences (15%)

Includes various issues of word placement, such as the order of verbs in multi-verb constructions; verb placement in questions, imperatives, subordinate and co-ordinate clauses, and after introductory words or phrases (“inversion”); and also the order of adverbials (time, reason, manner, place).

Special Cases (10%)

Idiomatic usage of language at the intersection of grammar and vocabulary. Examples include distinctions among verbs, such as kennen vs. können vs. wissen; the meaning/use of prepositions; frequently confused conjunctions (for example, als vs. wenn vs. ob); and the distinction among prepositions, adverbs, and conjunctions that relate to the same root word (for example, nach vs. naccher vs. nachdem).

Pragmatics (10%)

Rather than on accuracy, these items focus on appropriateness in the socio-cultural context. Items may ask about context-appropriate phrases; the relationship between two speakers; or the most likely setting for an exchange. Correct answers are based on knowledge of socio-cultural conventions as well as lexical and grammatical clues.

The following items are representative of the kind of questions students are asked to answer.

1.     Sprich nicht mehr davon!  Das können wir                      nicht leisten.
        a.     euch
        b.     uns
        c.     dich
        d.    sich



2.     X:    Was wollt ihr zu Weihnachten bekommen?
        Y:    Wir                      viele schöne Geschenke bekommen!

        a.     mögen
        b.     mochten
        c.     wollten
        d.    möchten


3.     Das ist das Ende,                      ihr alle lange gewartet habt!
        a.     für die
        b.     bis die
        c.     auf das
        d.    an das



4.     Max                      nicht, wann der Bus ankommen soll.
        a.     wissen
        b.     weißt    
c.     weiß  
        d.    wisst



5.     Vergessen Sie bitte nicht,                     .
        a.     machen alle Lichter aus
        b.     alle Lichter auszumachen
        c.     alle Lichter ausmachen
        d.    auszumachen alle Lichter



6.     Die Klasse hat                      Wörter schnell gelernt.
        a.     alle fremden
        b.     allen fremden
        c.     alle fremde
        d.    allen die fremden



7.     X:    Wo ist das neue Einkaufszentrum?
        Y:                         Neumannstraße.
        a.     In der
        b.     Zu der
        c.     Von der
        d.    Bei


8.     Im Mai                      ich 20 Jahre alt.
        a.     würde
        b.     wird 
        c.     werde
        d.    will


9.     X:    Haben Sie frische Milch?
        Y:    Ja,                      ist ganz frisch.
        a.     es
        b.     sie
        c.     er
        d.    ihn


The correct answers are: (1) B, (2) D, (3) C, (4) C, (5) B, (6) A, (7) A, (8) C, (9) B



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 German.  Not surprisingly, students' scores on the placement test are in direct relationship to the number of German courses they took in middle and high school: the more German 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 German 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 German appears to have detrimental consequences.  Our statistics show that students who take German in the senior year of high school generally place higher than students who do not take German in their senior year, even when they both have had the same number of years of German classes overall.

These two factors support the recommendation that students spend as many years as possible in German 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 German 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 German and work with audio and video recordings, thereby including regular and diverse listening activities in classroom instruction.  Above all, conduct your class in German 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, 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, 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 German courses as possible continuing through senior year.  Since all three 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 German study beyond the classroom and to maintain their language skills over the summer.

        1.     Read German 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 German 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 German 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 cloze and logical rejoinder modules are good examples 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 German.  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 German proficiency, it is unlikely that they will become integral parts of the German 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 German 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.


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