K-12 World Language Assessment Research Brief

By Caitlyn Pineault, Malik Stevenson, & Margaret E. Malone

Curious about trends in K-12 assessment? This brief provides an overview of the relationship between language learning standards and different assessment tools

This research brief can also be viewed and downloaded as a pdf here.


Over the past four decades, language learning standards have shaped the development of K-12 world language curriculum, assessments, and instruction (Kaplan, 2016). Situating these standards at the center of teaching and learning efforts maximizes the ability of assessments to reliably report students’ linguistic development (Cox, Malone, & Winke, 2018). Strong assessment practices are cyclical in nature, documenting not just a learners’ performance at one point in time, but also informing both learners’ and instructors’ plans for ongoing growth (Nikolov, 2016). Recent research in this area has focused predominantly on oral proficiency assessments.

What does it mean?

National Standards for Foreign Language Learning articulate targeted competencies across five goal areas: Communication, Culture, Comparison, Communities, and Connection (National Standards Collaborative Board, 2015).

Performance-based assessments involve integrating content to create a complex product or response using multiple skills and/or modes of communication (Liskin-Gasparro, 1996).

Alternative assessments include portfolios, observations, self-assessments, and conferences that assess learners’ progress toward course goals.


  • K-12 assessments often target the “Communication” goal area and the presentational mode of communication (Troyan, 2012; Cox, Malone, & Winke, 2018).
  • There is a gap between what language assessments measure, what standards describe, and what teachers believe is important in language learning (Davin, Rempert, & Hammerand, 2014; Kissau & Adams, 2016).
  • The standard and computerized OPI are valid and reliable tools for assessing oral skill development of the ACTFL proficiency levels (Thompson, Cox, & Knapp, 2016).
  • The ACTFL Assessment of Performance toward Proficiency in Languages (AAPPL) and Student Oral Proficiency Assessment (SOPA) are reliable and effective measures of student performance and speaking/listening skills in K-12 learners (Thompson, Kenyon, & Rhodes, 2002; Cox & Malone, 2018).
  • Alternative assessment measures have been found to positively relate to student scores on proficiency-oriented assessments (Brown, Dewey, & Cox, 2014).

So What?

It can be said that… 

“The aim of assessment is primarily to educate and improve student performance, not merely to audit it” (Wiggins, 1998, pg. 7).

For instructors and administrators:

  • When assessments and classroom instruction are mutually informing, they advance and inform student development.
  • Instructors need support to develop and implement or select and use assessments to provide information to themselves, their students and their programs.
  • Assessments can provide concrete evidence to highlight the extent to which language programs are achieving their student-outcome goals.

For researchers:

  • The alignment between curriculum, teaching practices, assessment tools, and national language standards merits further exploration.
  • To determine reasonable proficiency targets for K-12 students, longitudinal studies on different language program models are critical. 
  • Assessment outcomes can provide much-needed articulation among K-12 programs and from secondary to post-secondary programs.
  • There is a need for more K-12 assessments that can accurately and reliably measure students’ receptive skills.

Also read…

Cox., T.L., Malone, M.E., Winke, P. (2018). Future directions for assessment: Influences of standards and implications for language learning. Foreign Language Annals, 51, 104-115.

Glisan, E., & Donato, R. (2020). Enacting the work of language instruction, Volume 1: High-leverage teaching practices (2nd ed.). ACTFL.


Brown, N.A., Dewey, D.P., & Cox, T.L. (2014). Assessing the validity of Can-Do Statements in retrospective (then-now) self-assessment. Foreign Language Annals47, 261-285.

Cox, T.L., & Malone, M.E. (2018). The validity argument to support the ACTFL Assessment of Performance toward Proficiency in Languages (AAPPL). Foreign Language Annals, 51, 548-574. 

Davin, K. J., Rempert, T. A., & Hammerand, A. A. (2014). Converting data to knowledge: One district’s experience using large‐scale proficiency assessment. Foreign Language Annals47(2), 241-260.

Elder, C. (2009). Reconciling accountability and development needs in heritage language education: A communication challenge for the evaluation consultant. Language Teaching Research13(1), 15-33.

Heining-Boynton, A. L. (1990). The development and testing of the FLES program evaluation inventory. The Modern Language Journal74(4), 432-439.

Hur, J. W., & Suh, S. (2010). The Development, Implementation, and Evaluation of a Summer School for English Language Learners. Professional Educator, 34(2).

Kaplan, C.S. (2016). Alignment of world language standards and assessments: A multiple case study. Foreign Language Annals, 49, 502-529. 

Kissau, S., & Adams, M.J. (2016) Instructional decision making and IPAs: Assessing the modes of communication. Foreign Language Annals, 29, 105-123.  

Kondo-Brown, K. (2002). A Longitudinal Evaluative Study on Child JFL Learners’ Oral Performances. Japanese Language and Literature36(2), 171-199.

Liskin-Gasparro, J. (1996). Circumlocution, communication strategies, and The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines: An analysis of student discourse. Foreign Language Annals, 29(3), 317-330.  

Nikolov, M. (2016). Trends, issues, and challenges in assessing young language learners. In M. Nikolov (Ed.), Assessing young learners of English: Global and local perspectives (pp. 1-18). New York: Springer. 

The National Standards Collaborative Board. (2015). World-Readiness Standards for Learning Languages. 4th ed. Alexandria, VA: Author.

Thompson, G.I., Cox, T.L., & Knapp, N. (2016). Comparing the OPI and the OPIc: The effect of test method on oral proficiency scores and student preference. Foreign Language Annals, 49(1), 75-92. 

Thompson, L.E., Kenyon, D, M., & Rhodes, N.C. (2002). A validation study of the student oral proficiency assessment (SOPA). Washington, DC, & Ames, IA: Center for Applied Linguistics and Iowa State University National K-12 Foreign Language Resource Center. 

Troyan, F.J. (2012). Standards for foreign language learning: Defining the constructs and researching learner outcomes. Foreign Language Annals [Supplement], 45, S118-S140. 

Wiggins, G. (1998). Educative assessment: Designing assessment to inform and improve student performance (1st ed.). Jossey-Bass Publishers. 

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