Proficiency-based assessment and personalized learning

What world language educators have known for years

08/21/2012  |  BY DR. JIM SNYDER
Classroom Assessment

Over the last few years, education leaders from across the United States have gathered to create a set of common academic standards for students in grades K-12. The goal of these standards is to provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help students be successful. 

The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success going forward as they attend college and enter careers. In other words, with this set of common standards, crossing a state line should not change the level of reading, writing, or math proficiency an individual needs for success in higher education, in the workplace, at home, or anywhere in life. Along with these new common core standards is a growing national conversation towards replacing the old time-based (seat-based) system with a competency-based system that is now being leveraged with the addition of online and self-directed learning.

Common Standards are Not New in World/Foreign Language Learning

This evolution towards a proficiency-based set of standards coupled with the growing discussion of the importance of personalized learning and assessment is new in the core subject areas; however, it has been more the norm in the World Language subject area for over 30 years. Given that students start learning a foreign language at different times in their schooling, the notion of grade-level proficiency standards in a foreign language is not possible or practical. Rather, the trend has been away from “seat time” — with a standard progression from Spanish 1 to Spanish 2, etc. — to competency-based instruction and learning, where students progress as they complete a set of standards at their own proficiency level. This proficiency-based learning method started to grow in the World Language subject area as far back at the 1990s, and its progression may serve as a preview of similar possibilities in other subjects over the next few years.

History of World Languages’ “Common Standards”

In 1993, a coalition of four national language organizations (the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, the American Association of Teachers of French, the American Association of Teachers of German, and the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese) received funding to develop standards for foreign language education, grades K-12. These culminated in 1996 when ACTFL published the document Standards for Foreign Language Learning: Preparing for the 21st Century. Now in its third edition, ACTFL’s Foreign Language Standards have set the framework for teachers, curriculum developers and administrators to deliver improved proficiency-based language instruction.

The most evident change to the foreign languages standards at that time was replacing grade-level standards with proficiency-level expectations. The proficiency levels are: novice, intermediate, advanced and superior. Additionally, each of these levels (except superior) was further subdivided into low, mid and high. The proficiency levels were defined separately by the ability to listen, speak, read and write in the target language. These new foreign languages standards were framed differently than standards in the past. A Novice Low proficiency level, whether taught to a first grader or a 10th grader, would contain the same standard content — gone were grade-level standards.

The majority of states engaged in developing their own foreign language standards in the 1990s and 2000s based their frameworks on these national standards; some replicated them exactly in terms of goals and outcomes, and others made some adaptations (ACTFL 2011). Today, over 40 states construct their foreign language communication standards around the Interpersonal, Interpretive and Presentational modes of the framework created by ACTFL. This allows for enriching and expanding the contexts of communication and opens the dialog for the changes these standards have on teaching and learning.

What Changed in World Languages Can Also Change for Core Subjects

In this competency-based approach, the traditional understanding of assessment is flipped on its head — the primary focus is on assessment for learning rather than of learning. This requires that schools emphasize formative evaluation and have a deep, shared understanding among teachers of what proficiency looks like and how to measure it in students. The ideal is that students are expected to demonstrate proficiency multiple times and in multiple ways so that everyone is confident that they can progress to the next level and fully apply the knowledge and skills they have acquired. Additionally, grades begin to have a different meaning and may reflect a different system entirely. For example, a grade of “A” may suggest an advanced level or mastery, “B” may suggest proficiency and the ability to progress, C’s and D’s may suggest that students are still working towards proficiency and need more time before they can progress.

World language teachers are encouraged to utilize Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” (ZPD) with the standards and the students, in which the students follow the teacher’s example and gradually develop the ability to do certain tasks without help or assistance. In other words, they are always reaching higher and building on the learning they already have.

Technology’s Positive Impact

When digital learning is introduced into this framework, it provides students with the additional time and resources to take charge of their own learning, and teachers with additional tools to guide students along the pathway to proficiency. Students are able to move through coursework at their own pace, spending as little or as much time as they need. Students working at a proficiency level below where they are expected to be now have access to technology to support the development of additional language skills they need to become proficient.

For the first time in our history, we have the tools and access to resources to allow individual learners the flexibility and freedom to pursue an education centered on their own interests and aptitudes. Educators and philosophers have long desired a learner-centered education for each student, molded by the learner as opposed to the factory system. While the aspiration has been there, the methods have been shackled by the restrictions of human interaction and delivery methods. There is only so much that can be personalized with one teacher, 20 to 40 students, and print media and production methods. Technology-delivered personalized learning allows students to have a wide choice of what they learn, how they learn, and when, where and how they demonstrate their learning.

How long does it take to become proficient in a foreign language?

Students often ask their teachers how long it will take them to become proficient in the target language. This question is impossible to answer because a lot depends on a person’s language learning ability, motivation, learning environment, intensity of instruction, and prior experience in learning foreign languages. It also depends on the level of proficiency the person wishes to attain and how well prepared teachers are to guide them to that level.

In the teaching of a foreign language, the fundamental purpose is to enable students to communicate with native speakers of that language and to understand the culture of the target language. Thus, today’s teachers emphasize a communicative rather than a linguistic approach to teaching modern languages. Instead of teaching students vocabulary words or grammatical structures in isolation — like the old standards would have them do — teachers are empowered to help students regard and use the modern language as a tool that will enable them to accomplish a specific communicative purpose (function) in a particular form and setting (situation) about a particular subject (topic). The focus is always on what the students can do with the language and how well they can do it (proficiency).

The National Governors Association stated that there is a goal to “build flexibility into [...] policy to allow students to earn credit based on demonstrating mastery.” (Grossman & Shipton 2012). Personalized learning is not a new idea. It was historically limited to specialized tutors with great results, and now with adaptive software, assessment and improved data analysis, can provide the means to reach all students (Childress 2012). These technology tools can now be used to build personalized learning systems for all students. Starting with short- and long-term goals and incorporating teacher guidance, observation, and information about each student’s strengths, needs and passions creates a basis for formulating personalized learning plans for each student.

Language Portfolio

One such tool that is gaining wide use in language instruction is the use of an assessment portfolio. An assessment portfolio helps document what a student has learned, and is also a great tool for motivating the student to continue to learn. Within the portfolio, the content of the curriculum is aligned to standards and the teacher can collaborate with students in creating personalized goals. Both teachers and students can evaluate how students’ work demonstrates proficiency and meets the learning objectives as related to standards. The tasks are designed to provide context to elicit the knowledge and skill specified in the outcomes-based learning objectives. Performance tasks along with meaningful rubrics bring the learning outcomes to life; specifying precisely what students must do and how well they must do it provides these learning outcomes context and meaning. When descriptive statements of competency related to common standards and levels of proficiency are readily available and visible to all, students can see the waypoints of their future learning path. Students can actually visualize where they can go in their learning and how they can get there, and every student can participate in setting individualized learning goals and establishing a personalized path along the learning continuum.

Teachers of world languages have been working in a proficiency-based learning system for a number of years. These experiences using common standards, bodies of evidence and assessment portfolios can serve as a window for what is coming to the common core subject areas in the near future.


Childress, S., (March 2012) Rethinking School, Harvard Business Review
Grossman, T., & Shipton, S., (2012) State Strategies for Awarding Credit to Support Student Learning. National Governors Association Issue Brief F-3.
Phillips, J. K., & Abbot, M., (2011) A Decade of Foreign Language Standards: Influence, Impact and Future Directions. Presented at the ACTFL annual conference, October 2011.

Dr. Jim Snyder, Ed.D is the Director of Market Research at Avant Assessment, a leader in language proficiency assessments. Avant provides research-based assessments for World Languages and English in reading, writing, listening and speaking. With expertise in linguistics, assessment, technology and education at their foundation, Avant’s solutions build student and teacher confidence in real-world learning and deliver accurate standards-based data to inform the learning process. Learn more at
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