UH Moment

UH Moment: “Speaking Spanish”

Placement tests have a simple job, really: to indicate your level of proficiency in a given subject. But if the test is inadequate, how will you become more proficient.


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In Spanish classes, a placement test should be able to indicate whether a student is a ‘second language’ speaker (more basic) or if he is a more advanced ‘heritage’ speaker.  Success hinges on being placed in the right class.   

“When I started here, there was a very simple one and a half page exam,” said Marta Fairclough, associate professor and director of the UH Spanish Heritage Education.  “If it’s just a multiple choice test, it really doesn’t measure their spelling, their grammatical knowledge, how advanced they might be, and a lot of other aspects that need to be tested.”  

Fairclough says few students were taking the placement test, denying themselves the opportunity to learn at the proper level, and the opportunity to test out of several more basic classes.

She and colleague Flavia Belpoliti went to work researching other like-placement tests and textbooks nationwide.

“I looked at things that were working with tests and things that were problematic,” she said.  “At the end, the one and half page placement test grew to 10 pages.”

A team from the UH language testing center designed innovative software for a new test based that incorporates word recognition, grammar, written and voice recorded speech. Students could then more accurately be placed in the correct class.

“Today, students are not only being placed in the appropriate class based on the intricate test, more students are choosing to pursue Spanish studies.  They’re getting better grades and fewer of them are withdrawing, dropping or getting incompletes.”

The test has also become a bit of a celebrity as other universities across the country are interested in buying it for their own students.  

Still nothing says success like fulfilled students.

“One student told me, ‘I’m speaking more with my father because he doesn’t speak English, and now I can speak Spanish.’ That’s success. That’s success.”

Speaking Spanish is part of what’s happening at the University of Houston.