Understanding Proficiency

Proficiency refers to the ability of performing an action or function. It refers to one’s ability to use language for real world purposes to accomplish real world linguistic tasks, across a wide range of topics and settings. ACTFL Proficiency Tests reflect and measure these real world tasks.

Differing from an achievement test that measures knowledge of specific information (what a person knows), a proficiency test targets what an individual can do with what one knows. As in a driver’s test, an achievement test would represent the paper and pencil questions that one answers, while a proficiency test determines how well the person can drive the car. The language proficiency test is an evaluation of how well a person can use language to communicate in real life.

ACTFL proficiency tests compare a person’s unrehearsed ability against a set of language descriptors – These Guidelines describe proficiency along a continuum from the very top (full professional proficiency) of a scale to the very bottom (little or no functional ability). Each of the ten descriptions contained in these guidelines describes language ability in terms of tasks, text type, accuracy and content areas. A rating on the proficiency scale does not depend upon how many semesters or years someone has been learning a language, what textbooks or other materials one has used, or even on a speaker’s knowledge of grammar – but rather solely on the speaker’s demonstrated ability to use language to accomplish real life tasks. Achievement tests, in contrast, typically focus on what an individual has learned based on the specific content or subject matter of what has been taught, and tend to be limited in scope to a specific text book or curriculum.

Unlike an achievement test, in which it is possible to “get all the answers right,” a proficiency test does not allow for a “perfect score,” nor does it compare the results of the test to other test-takers. In proficiency tests, the performance is compared to a set of criteria, as defined in the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012.

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