Spanish 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 Spanish courses. The current test contains two sections: language usage and reading comprehension. The Spanish placement test is 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.


Follow this link for a Spanish 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 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 Spanish to answer many questions and yet has to be complex enough to measure the skills of students with four or five years of Spanish. 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 competence: knowledge of proper language usage and reading comprehension. 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 Spanish study, grade received, and when the last Spanish class was taken, to determine actual placement.


General Characteristics of the Test

1. All items are to be completed by all students. The expectation is that students who have had one or two years of high school Spanish will answer fewer questions correctly than students who have had three or more years of high school Spanish.

2. The test is entirely in Spanish (except for the instructions) and consists of multiple choice questions with either two, three, or four choices each.

3. The test is scored as the 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 Language Usage and Reading Comprehension Test is designed as a test of skill and not speed. Ample time is allowed to answer all questions. Sixty (60) minutes are allowed to complete the Spanish Placement Test.

5. The Spanish Placement Test total score (Language Usage and Reading Comprehension combined) has a reliability above .90. The two sections individually each have test reliabilities above .85.


Language Usage and Reading Comprehension Test

The Language Usage Section

The language usage section of the Spanish Placement Test deals primarily, though not exclusively, with questions of syntax. Grammatical content of the texts used in first and second year courses was analyzed noting the stage at which certain concepts were introduced and when such concepts were reviewed in the second year. Test questions were written to measure those concepts which appeared to be important to beginning study at each course level. Great care was taken in writing questions to avoid ambiguity or arcane constructions, and problems which might require special knowledge of regional or dialectical differences. The general criterion was to write items based on constructions of acceptable grammar and high frequency of occurrence throughout the Spanish-speaking world.

The Spanish Placement Test includes three different sections dealing with language usage. One of these sections presents 4-alternative multiple choice questions which contain a statement that is to be completed by selecting the choice that makes that sentence grammatically correct. A second section uses a cloze format to test certain concepts that are more successfully tested in context. This section tests a variety of different language usage objectives, including verb forms and uses, pronoun forms and uses, adjective, adverb, and article usage, and expressions for comparisons and negation. The third (and most recent) section presents short dialogues in which the examinee is asked to complete the dialogue by identifying the statement that follows most logically from the rest of the dialogue. Items in this section are designed to measure skills necessary for effective communication.

Below is a detailed description of the various test objectives for the language usage section, and an indication of the relative weight given to each objective on the test (Revised April, 2010).

1. Verb Tense, Aspect and Agreement (indicative: present, preterite/imperfect, perfect,
progressive, conditional, future, including probability and contrast with
infinitive forms) - 20%

2. Communicative items/Logical completions -15%

3. Mood (includes subjunctive, indicative, imperative, contrast with infinitive and certain prepositions followed by infinitive/subjunctive) -15%

4. Ser/Estar/Haber/Tener/Hacer (includes tener idioms, tener que, hay que and passive voice) -15%

5. Lexicon (includes verbs such as saber/conocer, pedir/preguntar, false cognates,
verbs with prepositions, idiomatic expressions (hace que, pasarlo bien, etc.) and prepositions) - 10%

6. Direct and indirect object pronouns - 5%

7. Other pronouns, conjunctions, and negatives  - 5%
a. demonstrative pronouns
b. relatives
c. possessive pronouns
d. nominalization
e. indefinite/negative (alguien, nadie, etc.)

8. Uses of "se" including reciprocals, passive and impersonal se - 5%

9. Gustar and similar verbs - 5%

10. Modifiers and Comparisons  - 5%
a. Determiners and Adjectives
(1) gender/number agreement
(2) articles–definite and indefinite
(3) possessive adjectives
(4) demonstrative adjectives
b. Adverbs
c Comparisons

The Spanish Placement Test is also constructed according to the following criteria:

1. no English to Spanish translation;

2. no incorrect spelling or grammatically incorrect phrases in the distractors (grammatically incorrect choices can (and often will) result when a student selects a “wrong” answer to complete the sentence);

3. limitations on lexical items to those typically found in high school texts, so that this does not become a vocabulary test;

4. concentration on high frequency structures and on those which contrast with English;

5. exclusion of items that contain a racial, cultural, or sexist bias;

6. exclusion of items that require calculation or special cultural knowledge beyond the context of the question;

7. no “trick”, contrived, or whimsical questions;

It is clear that there are many types of syntactic constructions which allow for a variety of acceptable alternatives or, that under certain context could be interpreted differently. For this reason, several grammatical concepts are simply not covered in this test. Other important concepts are sometimes omitted because they do not provide useful information for placing students correctly. The following items are representative of the kind of questions students are asked to answer.


Sample Language Usage Items

Select the correct choice to fill the blank space in the sentence:

1. Los hombres ______ afeitan cuando tienen barba.
a. le
b. lo
c. me
d. se

2. Cuando llegamos allí, nos dijeron que Roberto ya ______ .
a. ha salido
b. salga
c. había salido
d. saliera

3. ¿A usted ______ bien su nuevo secretario?
a. te cae
b. me cae
c. se cae
d. le cae

4. El conductor quiere tu billete. ______ ahora.
a. Dátelo
b. Dáselo
c. Dásela
d. Dátela

5. ¿Es posible que ______ dónde está el tesoro?
a. sé
b. seas
c. sepa
d. saben

6. Los muchachos no ______ esquiar.
a. conocen
b. saben
c. tienen
d. aprenden

7. ______ libro que está aquí es de Carla.
a. Este
b. Ese
c. Aquel
d. Esto

8. Leímos los artículos, ______ encontramos muy interesantes.
a. las cuales
b. los cuales
c. quienes
d. las que

9. Los ancianos ______ sentados en los sillones más cómodos.
a. están
b. son
c. habían
d. estáis

10. Después de nadar en el lago, quiero ______ el pelo.
a. lavar
b. lavarse
c. lavarme
d. me lavo

11. El escritor ______ mandó los manuscritos al señor Gutiérrez.
a. le
b. les
c. la
d. los

12. Si sube el nivel de los océanos a causa del calentamiento global, muchas costas ______ .
a. desaparezcan
b. desaparecerán
c. desaparecieran
d. desaparecían

13. X: ¿Te gustó la comida?
      Y: Sí, ______ mucho.
a. me gustó
b. te gusta
c. me gustan
d. me gustaron

14. La mujer ______ dio la conferencia es muy inteligente, ¿no?
a. que
b. quien
c. cual
d. a quien

The correct answers are: (1) d, (2) c, (3) d, (4) b, (5) c, (6) b, (7) a, (8) b, (9) a, (10) c, (11) a, (12) b,
(13) a, (14) a


Sample Cloze Item

You will be given a reading passage from which several words have been omitted. For each blank, select the correct choice from the possible answers given.


graphic image of sample cloze passages

The correct answers are: (1) b, (2) d, (3) b, (4) a, (5) c, (6) a, (7) c, (8) c, (9) d


Sample Communication Items

Select the choice that logically completes the dialogue. The two speakers are labeled by X and Y.

1. X: Necesito saber por qué no vino a la fiesta Ramón.
    Y: ______ .

a. Va a traer cerveza, ¿no?
b. Es hora de preguntárselo.
c. Me la pidió esta mañana.
d. ¿No sabe qué hora es?

2. X: ¿Le llevaste tu coche al mecánico?
    Y: ______ .

a. No, se me olvidó
b. Sí, te lo hago esta tarde
c. No, lo vas a arreglar pronto
d. Sí, es del mecánico

3. X: ______
    Y: Llevo cinco años viviendo aquí.

a. ¿Cuántos años tienes?
b. ¿Qué se lleva a los cinco años?
c. ¿Cuánto tiempo hace que vives aquí?
d. ¿Qué tiempo hace donde vives?

The correct answers are: (1) b, (2) a, (3) c



The Reading Section

An important consideration in the development of this section is comprehension of the sense of the text beyond a mere knowledge of Spanish. A large number of possible texts were considered. However, all technical, scientific, and other specialized materials, poetry and stylistically complex literature, biased or controversial readings, and texts that require wide experience in an Hispanic culture were all excluded. Passages which provided the best material for the reading test were ones which had an internal structure independent of their original purpose. As a rule, passages filled with facts but without a clearly stated point do not meet this criterion. Variety in subject matter and content was an important objective in selection of reading passages. Where possible, the various versions of the test have included narratives, advertisements, public notices, anecdotes, jokes, character descriptions, and the like.

In most cases, the original text was edited to bring it within the range of the vocabulary of the representative high school texts. Every effort was made to produce a text in which comprehension was not dependent on a key word or phrase that could not be inferred from the context. English cognates were avoided if they were uncommon in Spanish usage. The authenticity of the original style was maintained wherever possible. Anglicized versions of the original Spanish were not used.

Two to six questions are asked after each passage. On most passages, at least one item is included which is considered an “easy” item on a basic fact. In addition, one interpretative item is usually included on the sense or intent of the text as a whole.

The following passage and accompanying questions are typical of the Spanish Reading Section.

Passage One

Cuenta el doctor Gómez una interesante anécdota que le ocurrió cuando conversaba con un chico de ocho años. Entre otras cosas, el doctor le pregunta al niño:
– Y a ti, Luisito, ¿qué te gustaría ser?
El niño contesta sin vacilar: – Yo quiero ser como papá.
– ¡Como tu papá! Y, ¿por qué?
– Para dar órdenes y tener siempre razón.
– ¿Crees tú que los papás nunca se equivocan?
– Sí, se equivocan, pero siempre tienen razón.
Comenta el doctor Gómez: – Me quedé en silencio y comprendí que para Luis, la razón está en la autoridad y no en la verdad.
Cuántas veces nosotros, los mayores, con nuestra conducta, les damos a los niños ideas erróneas de la realidad.

1. El niño de la anécdota quiere ser como su papá porque, en su opinión, los papás

a. nunca se equivocan.
b. nunca tienen problemas.
c. siempre tienen autoridad.
d. siempre tienen buenas ideas.

2. Lo más importante para Luis es

a. no tener razón.
b. decir la verdad.
c. tener autoridad.
d. no ser como su papá.

3. La reacción del doctor es de

a. alegría.
b. sorpresa.
c. disgusto.
d. indiferencia.

The correct answers are: (1) c, (2) c, (3) b


Passage Two

De cada 100 horas de trabajo no remuneradas al año en España, 80 las hacen las mujeres. Sin embargo, de cada 100 horas pagadas, sólo 31 corresponden a las trabajadoras y, además, con salario inferior al que reciben los hombres por igual actividad. Éstas son algunas de las cifras que ilustran el enorme camino que queda por recorrer para conseguir la igualdad entre los sexos. Aunque la igualdad entre los sexos está asegurada por ley, en la vida real las cosas son muy diferentes.

Amalia Gómez, secretaria general de Asuntos Sociales, comparó la igualdad formal con “un espejismo”, y la profesora de sociología e investigadora del CSIC María Ángeles Durán, hizo hincapié en que “no sólo se necesita un cambio, sino toda una revolución”, y alertó ante el futuro: “Hay que ser consciente de los muchísimos obstáculos que quedan por superar y no bajar la guardia, porque la situación no está consolidada”.

Adapted from La revista/El mundo (España)

4. Según este artículo, las mujeres españolas

a. trabajan menos que los hombres.
b. trabajan mucho sin recibir dinero por su trabajo.
c. reciben sólo 80% del sueldo de los hombres.
d. trabajan 31 horas por semana.

5. En este texto, el término “espejismo” se refiere a

a. algo irreal.
b. algo imposible.
c. algo del futuro.
d. algo flexible.

6. La frase “Hay que ser consciente de los muchísimos obstáculos que quedan por superar...” significa que

a. hay un claro futuro para las trabajadoras españolas.
b. en la vida real se aplica la ley laboral.
c. no hay posibilidad de cambio.
d. hay que seguir luchando por la igualdad entre los sexos.

7. Esta lectura habla

a. de los progresos conseguidos en la lucha por la igualdad.
b. de la importancia de las contribuciones femeninas al mundo del trabajo.
c. de la necesidad de trabajar más por los derechos de las mujeres en el campo laboral.
d. del alto número de mujeres que trabajan fuera de la casa.

The correct answers are: (4) b, (5) a, (6) d, (7) 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 Spanish. Not surprisingly, students' scores on the placement test are in direct relationship to the number of Spanish courses they took in middle and high school: the more Spanish 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 Spanish are roughly equivalent to one year (two semesters) of college study.

Another crucial factor that has emerged from studies conducted to develop this test is that time away from studying Spanish appears to have detrimental consequences. Our statistics show that students who take Spanish in the senior year of high school generally place higher than students who do not take Spanish in their senior year, even when they both have had the same number of years of Spanish classes overall.

These two factors support the recommendation that students spend as many years as possible in Spanish 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
and for Continued Study at the University Level

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 Spanish 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. To this end, we have developed these tests to measure reading and language usage.

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 Spanish and work with audio and video recordings, thereby including regular and diverse listening activities in classroom instruction. Above all, conduct your class in Spanish 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 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.


Advising Students on Preparing for the Test

As already stated, the best preparation is solid work in as many Spanish courses as possible continuing through senior year. Since the Spanish Placement Test is 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 Spanish study beyond the classroom and to maintain their language skills over the summer.

1. Read Spanish 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 Spanish 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 Spanish Placement Test will continually be reviewed and analyzed to be sure the material is current and meaningfully related to the curricula in the introductory Spanish 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. As an example, because the field is increasingly emphasizing communicative skills, we have recently added a new item type that attempts to measure some of the skills necessary to effectively communicate in Spanish. 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 Spanish proficiency, it is unlikely that they will become integral parts of the Spanish 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 Spanish 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.


Return to Homepage