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If you are an teacher, Director of Studies or school owner you’ll know the importance of putting students in the right group. Whether it’s a business English class, exam prep or general English – a placement test is essential. Without one, you’ll teach classes with such varied levels and needs, it’ll be hard to plan an effective lesson.

Placing students in the wrong level will not only lead to unmotivated learners, but it may also cost your institution money, as we explored in our article: The high cost of placing university students in the wrong English program.

But how exactly do you design a test that’s reliable, accurate and easy to use? In this post, we’ll examine the key questions you need to consider before making your own placement test. We’ll also explore what features you need to achieve your goals.

PProblems with traditional placement tests
Most private language schools (PLSs) and higher education institutions offer new students the opportunity to take a placement test before starting a course. However, these are often just a multiple-choice test, a short interview, or a combination of the two.

While this does act as a filter helping us group students into similar levels, there are a number of downfalls. Students can guess the answers to multiple-choice questions – and while they might give us a rough idea of their grammar knowledge, these tests don’t take into account the four skills: speaking, writing, listening and reading.

Oral interviews on the other hand, can give us an indication of the students’ spoken level. However, they also raise questions of objectivity and consistency that even specially trained teachers will struggle to avoid.

Another big issue with traditional tests is the amount of time they take. Multiple-choice exams are often graded by hand and interviewing every single new student uses up valuable resources which could be put to use elsewhere.

KKey questions to consider
Before you re-design your current test completely, we’ve put together a series of questions to help you think about your objectives, define your needs and explore the challenges you may face.

Taking a few minutes to think about these things can make the process of finding the right English placement test go more smoothly and quickly. Once you know what you’re looking for, you’ll be ready to make a checklist of the features that matter the most.

WWhat will your test be used for?
Placing incoming ESL students into the appropriate English language program
Measuring students’ progress throughout the school year
Final assessment of students’ abilities at the end of the school year (“exit test”)
All of the above
Is this different from what you use your current test for? How soon are your needs likely to change?

WWhat skills does your current test measure?
Does it measure speaking, listening, reading, writing, or all of the above? Are all of these skills measured in separate tests — or in one test?

HHow many students do you need to test at each intake?
How many students do you need to test each year? How many do you expect you’ll need to test in three years?

HHow quickly do you currently receive test results? How quickly would you like to receive them?
If you are able to test your students weeks in advance of the start of the school term, you may have time to wait for results. However, if you are continuously testing students, or have students arriving just before the term begins, you may need to get results much more quickly.

WWhat features in your current test do you like and dislike?
Are there things in your current test that you also want in your new test? Is anything missing, or anything that you don’t want your new test to have?

WWhat resources are available to you?
Some English language tests require students to have the computer skills needed to take the test online. You may also need a testing lab that has:

Computers
A stable internet connection
A headset with a built-in microphone
AA preliminary checklist for placement tests
Once you’ve got answers to the questions, you can use the checklist below to make sure your placement test has the features you need. It may also be useful for comparing products if you decide to use an external placement test.

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