The high cost of placing university students in the wrong English program

Versant Placement Tests

University students usually join English language programs because they need to attain a certain level to be accepted on their chosen courses.

A placement test is the first step on this journey. Before starting an Intensive English Program (IEP) or an English as a Second Language (ESL) program, students are assessed for their levels in speaking, listening, reading, and writing. This allows administrators to carefully assign them to a group where they will study English at the right level, alongside people with similar needs.

But what happens when this goes wrong and students are not placed in the correct levels?

The consequences can be extremely costly for students, universities and administrators alike. Here are the challenges universities face and the solutions they can implement.

What happens when students are not placed correctly on an IEP course?

When it comes to misplacement on a course, it’s students who suffer the most. If they are allocated to a group that’s too low for them, they’ll spend more time on the program than necessary. As a result, they will likely lose motivation as the activities will be too easy. On the other hand, if they are placed in too high a level, they will probably struggle, fall behind and even fail their course. This could lead to losing a university place, or a big delay in starting.

Teachers also suffer the consequences of misplaced students. Firstly, students can become disruptive if they are struggling in a class (or finding it too easy). Teachers often have to adapt their classes and scaffold activities for individuals, making it much harder to do an effective job. Secondly, students often evaluate their teachers poorly if they are placed in the wrong level. While the content and teacher may be excellent, the student’s experience will be far from satisfactory. Teacher evaluations are often tied to compensation and employment opportunities. This can lead to further problems when it comes to career advancement.

It’s also a serious issue for administrators. Student misplacement can directly affect a program’s return on investment. Students are likely to drop out of courses if they feel they are too easy – or move to another school that better serves their needs if their class is too hard. Administrators will therefore miss retention targets and, ultimately, this will affect the university’s bottom line.

What are the challenges of offering an effective English language placement test?

The downsides of placing a student in the wrong level are huge – but correct placement is much easier said than done. There are a number of factors that make accurate level testing a challenge.

Skill variance

Students often test very differently across skill sets, making them very hard to place. For example, many students have strong speaking skills, but weak listening skills. Those with this particular issue will struggle in a classroom situation where they have to listen to complex lectures for long periods of time.

False positives

IEP programs are seeing an increase in the numbers of “false beginners” from Asia in particular. These are students who have been exposed to English for years and, typically, have passive knowledge. Although they have memorized sets of irregular verbs, they can’t necessarily use the language actively or effectively.


While students learn a lot of vocabulary in their English language programs, they often don’t have enough to prepare them for a degree-level course. Lecturers very rarely provide students with vocabulary lists ahead of reading tasks. Without this type of guidance, topic-specific reading is very difficult for ESL students.

Academic-level reading and writing skills

University level reading is extremely demanding and lecturers have high expectations for writing skills. While most English language programs teach writing skills, this includes a lot of narrative writing or very simple nonfiction writing. This is not well suited to students who need to be able to write research papers with citations and references.

How can you ensure you are placing your academic ESL students correctly?

Versant Tests University

Firstly, it’s important to measure speaking, listening, reading, and writing. There should be a range of challenges for students – including elements that measure productive skills such as open-ended questions.

Secondly, you must aim to create an optimal testing environment. Avoid putting too many students in a room and make sure that if you use a technology-based assessment that is very reliable.

Thirdly, you should ensure your tests are well designed. There is a greater margin for error with tests that use multiple choice questions because students can guess the answers correctly. Tests with open-ended responses are critical for accurate placements.

Moreover, you should also test for academic English. It’s important to align the test content and scoring with the university’s requirements for English language ability in specific degree courses. Academic Eglish skills are also transferable across all disciplines, so you can use one placement test for everything.

Finally, you must ensure you have reliable assessments. Validate the quality of your assessments using data analysis and map what is being assessed to the requirements of the degree course your students are going to take. This will help ensure the results you are getting accurately reflect the students’ levels.

How can Versant Tests help place your students accurately?

Versant Placement Test

If your program does not have experts in testing and assessment, the Versant English Placement Test™ (VEPT) is an ideal solution.

VEPT is delivered online and automatically evaluates a student’s speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills. The test requires only 50 minutes to complete and detailed scores are then delivered online within minutes.

It’s scored by advanced speech processing technology, including advanced linguistic theory (for speaking and listening), and latent semantic analysis (for writing and reading). This eliminates human error and cultural bias.

Using this technology, the VEPT can be used to:

  • Evaluate a student’s English communication skills for course placement or exit exam
  • Monitor student progress and measure instructional outcomes
  • Benchmark the language levels of students to correctly place them in training or remedial programs.

Lastly, the VEPT is already aligned with standards like the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) and the Global Scale of English (GSE).

Visit the website to learn more about the Versant English Placement Test.

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