Report card grades and language proficiency test scores

Thinking Ahead to College and University Series – Part 2

By Lauren Barrows, Paragon Testing Enterprises

College and university may seem a ways off to some, but in this article Lauren Barrows explains why if an English language proficiency test score is a necessary part of students’ college or university application package that it is necessary for students to prepare for the test, even if they are receiving good grades on their school report cards.

Throughout the school year most schools send home report cards that summarize a student’s progress with a letter grade or a percentage. But sometimes students who receive top grades on their report cards do not receive the highest possible English language proficiency test scores. This can be a frustrating experience for students and their families who were anticipating a particular result.

So why might there be difference between a student’s report card grade and their score on a high-stakes academic English language proficiency test like CAEL CE, a test that is taken by students who need to satisfy a college or university’s English language requirement?

The main reason for the discrepancy is that academic English language proficiency tests and report card grades, even grades for English courses, look at different things.

Report card grades

In school, students’ report card grades represent their achievement of curriculum expectations and learning goals at the time the report card was written. In order to award final grades teachers assess the degree to which students have mastered material in the course syllabus, and report it back to students and families in the form of letter or percentage grades.

Over the course of a semester teachers provide students with many opportunities to show their developing skills in and understanding of the course syllabus. Teachers look at students’ performance on assignments, tests, and take-home projects for evidence that a student is achieving the courses’ teaching objectives and learning the school’s curriculum. Some learning tasks reveal more about students’ skills and knowledge than others. So teachers weigh all available evidence of student achievement collected through observations, conversations, assignments, and tests before using their professional judgement to make a decision about a report card grade. This means that final report card grades are a reflection of students most recent and consistent achievement. For example, a student’s low mark on an assignment early in a semester might not be considered when determining that student’s report card grade at the end of the semester if he or she has consistently shown better understanding in that skill.

The curriculum expectations and learning goals of a course determine what is taught, assessed, and then reported on students’ report cards. As such, the final report card grade measures how well students have learned a specific set of skills and concepts about a subject. For example, a report card grade from a high school English course on Canadian literature is not representative of a student’s knowledge of another subject like mathematics, or even the field of English language arts more broadly. Rather, the report card grade in Canadian literature indicates whether the student learned what was taught in the Canadian literature course. Or said more generally, the report card grade is an assessment of how well the student understood the material that was described in the course syllabus. To know more about students’ capabilities beyond a courses’ learning goals, students need to be assessed in different ways and with different measures.

Report card grades provide useful feedback to students and families regarding the achievements students have made in school. They also serve the administrative purpose of recording students’ academic record. However, for students who learned English as an additional language and did not complete at least four years of secondary school in English, colleges and universities do not get an indication of students’ readiness to undertake post-secondary study from report cards alone. For these students, colleges and universities need another measure; an academic language proficiency test score.

Academic English language proficiency test scores

Academic English language proficiency tests measure a student’s ability to read, write, listen, and speak in English in typical classroom situations (learn more about academic English language proficiency tests here.

In contrast to the close connection between report card grades and curriculum expectations, academic language proficiency test scores have a wider focus. Tests, like CAEL CE, assess test takers’ abilities to use English in academic contexts. Unlike report cards, the purpose of academic English language proficiency test scores are not to document students’ learning process, but are to indicate the level of language students’ can understand and produce at college or university. As such, they have a much broader focus than one high school course.

When students take a language proficiency test, they do so under much stricter conditions and with less support than is offered in a high school classroom. For example, dictionaries are not allowed, teachers and peers are unable to provide feedback or guidance, and the time to create and review answers is limited. These factors can all affect students’ performance on test day. If this is coupled with inadequate test preparation and significant test stress, it is to be expected that performance and scores could be negatively impacted.

Academic language proficiency tests assess a common language ability that is relevant to all students entering college or university, regardless of what major or specialization students will study. Colleges and universities expect that entering students will have the necessary language skills to analyze, to argue, to explain, and report information and/or opinions, in any academic area – and this is what academic English language proficiency tests assess. For example, CAEL CE incorporates aspects of academic vocabulary into the long reading and listening passages, and requires test takers to support their arguments with evidence from the passage when writing an extended response. Academic language skills are developed as students learn to use English to learn and are a critical component of students’ future success in college or university.

You can explore more about an academic language proficiency test that is taken by students who need to meet Canadian college and university English language requirements by visiting the CAEL CE website.