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Are we finally bringing placement and practice testing into the 21st century?

2009 proved to be the year when long periods of investment by a number of publishers and exam boards in the application of new technology to language testing have finally came to fruition and resulted in a range of significant new additions to the repertoire of resources available to those involved in ELT. In particular, the Oxford Placement Test, represents a remarkable step forward in the online provision available to learners, teachers and language teaching institutions in two key areas, placement testing and practice testing.

As someone who has been involved for many years both in test design and as a test user, my initial professional interest in the site was primarily in the new placement testing facility developed by OUP, where the benefits of what can be achieved with the latest ‘custom built’ software can be seen not only in the learning management system (LMS), which allows for efficient and flexible administration of the test, but most crucially in the design of the placement test itself. The Oxford Placement Test is a CAT, a computer adaptive test, ‘the test you do with a mouse’. CATs are very difficult and expensive to produce, but when a CAT approach is taken to placement testing it brings huge benefits, because of the very nature of placement testing and the fact that it involves the need to determine the language levels (and ideally the language profiles) of learners of unknown levels. Traditional placement tests, even the best of them, are unavoidably inefficient in the sense that a proportion of the items will always be wasted, either being far too difficult and/or far too easy for a learner at a given level. CATs, because they are based on item banks from which items are chosen based on the testee’s previous responses, tailor the test to each test taker. They are thus able to achieve the ‘holy grail’ of placement testing, in that they can be quick and accurate, as well as being far more secure than their ‘pen and paper’ cousins.

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