Placement Testing

General Overview
(by John M. Norris)

The Georgetown University German Department (GUGD) Placement Exam consists of three sub-tests:

  • the Listening Comprehension Test (LCT),
  • the Reading Comprehension Test (RCT),
  • the C-test.

Each of these sub-tests was designed to provide information about how well entering students are able to understand and process German language texts (both aural and written) like those found at various levels within the German Department’s “Multiple Literacies” curriculum. The three sub-tests were also designed to provide this information as quickly and efficiently as possible. Students’ scores on these sub-tests are used for the sole purpose of deciding where students most appropriately fit within the set of courses offered in the “Multiple Literacies” curriculum; that is, at what curricular level students would benefit the most from instruction. Based on their placement exam scores, students may be placed into one of the first three levels of sequenced instruction (Beginning, Intermediate, and Advanced courses), or, with high enough scores, they may be placed out of the first three levels of instruction into Level IV courses.

Given the very broad range of language abilities reflected in these decisions, the three sub-tests were designed to contain both texts and items that range considerably in the amount of difficulty they may pose for students. Accordingly, most entering students should generally not expect to be able to answer all of the test items correctly.

The straightforward multiple choice format for items on the LCT and RCT will be familiar to most students. These items test students’ abilities to understand details and main ideas in the texts, as well as their abilities to make inferences based on their understanding of the meaning communicated in the texts.

The C-test format will probably be less familiar to most students, although it appears at first glance to be similar to a fill-in-the-blank test. However, the C-test is not a simple fill-in-the-blank test. The C-test asks examinees to complete the second half of words which have been deleted at regular intervals throughout a series of otherwise intact texts that are each around a paragraph in length. This i___ an exa___ sentence fr___ such a___ exam. As examinees complete the words, they recreate a meaningful text. However, in order to do so, they obviously have to know both the deleted words and the surrounding words, they have to understand the meaning conveyed by sentences within the text, and they have to understand the grammatical relationships expressed between particular words and between sentences. All of these abilities figure into the accurate completion of a C-test text; as such, the C-test presents students with a very challenging language task. Again, only very advanced language learners will be able to correctly answer all of the items in each C-test text, although certain texts will be easier or more difficult than others, depending on which level of the ?Multiple Literacies? curriculum they represent.

The C-test format (and the multiple choice formats for the LCT and RCT, for that matter) may appear somewhat “artificial” in terms of the kinds of communicative language abilities that students are expected to develop in college foreign language contexts. Indeed, the activities that students engage in on these placement tests should not be taken to reflect the kinds of communication they will be doing in Georgetown German classes. However, it should be understood that these tests are not intended as achievement or proficiency tests’rather, their sole purpose is to inform a quick and accurate placement decision. Several sources of evidence support the use of the C-test for placement purposes in college German language programs and in the GUGD:

1. C-tests have enjoyed a long history of successful use as placement exams in a number of foreign language programs in German universities, where this testing format was originally developed. Extensive research there has shown that: (a) scores on C-tests consistently provide good estimates of examinees? abilities, (b) placement decisions based on C-tests equal and often surpass the accuracy of other placement tests combined (such as oral interviews, written essays, grammar and vocabulary tests), and (c) C-tests provide accurate estimates and inform decisions in much less time than most other placement exam formats.

2. The GUGD placement exam was carefully developed such that the accuracy of placement decisions into the “Multiple Literacies” curriculum would be maximized. Research on this placement exam has shown that:

  • individual students? scores on the C-test improve consistently and as predicted as they advance through the levels of the curriculum;
  • average student scores on the C-test differ from curricular level to level as predicted;
  • graduate students and other very advanced German learners consistently place out of the sequenced courses in the curriculum;
  • scores on the C-test, LCT, and RCT are closely related as predicted; and, perhaps most importantly,
  • students and teachers almost always agree with a student?s placement based on the exam.

These and other sources of evidence support the use of the C-test and the full GUGD placement exam as a tool for making quick and accurate decisions about where, within the available German Department courses, incoming students most appropriately belong. Of course, as with any placement decision, there is always a small chance of students being placed into a course which does not provide the best fit for their language learning needs. Accordingly, placement policy in the GUGD treats the first several weeks of a typical semester (for study abroad, the first several days) as a probationary period for all placed students. During this period, teachers provide numerous opportunities for students to display their language knowledge and abilities, and they carefully compare their observations of placed students with the language learning demands that characterize the particular curricular level and course. On those occasions when a student and a teacher agree that the student would probably be better served in a lower or higher level course, placement decisions may be adjusted accordingly by the undergraduate curriculum supervisor or the department chair. While such changes happen rarely, this policy is in place in order to make sure that students benefit maximally from their time in the Georgetown University German Department.

Finally, it should be emphasized that it is not the expectation of the GUGD that incoming students will present homogenous German language knowledge and abilities which match exactly the abilities of other students and the coursework in particular classes. In fact, while the ?Multiple Literacies? curriculum was designed to foster certain kinds of continuing advanced language development throughout all levels of the program, it also recognizes the variable abilities that students will develop as they pursue their individual interests in using the German language for various communicative purposes. As such, the GUGD placement exam was designed to provide an efficient ?best-fit? estimate for incoming students. It was not designed to profile all of a student?s strengths and weaknesses in using German for meeting various communicative ends. It should go without saying that, once the placement decision has been made, it is up to the learner and the teacher to make sure that related language learning needs and objectives are met.

[Note: For further information about the policies and procedures associated with placement in the GUGD, please consult the web-based version for the most important information or contact Professor Hiram Maxim, the department’s Curriculum Coordinator.]

Posted January 22, 2003

[Note: For a research perspective on the C-test, see
John M. Norris. 2006. Development and evaluation of a curriculum-based German C-test for placement purposes. In Rüdiger Grotjahn, ed. Der C-Test: Theoretische Grundlagen und praktische Anwendungen. New York: Peter Lang, 45-83.

Posted May 10, 2006

Revised July 2011