To start off this entry, here is a question for all educators teaching foreign languages: Does your school offer foreign language proficiency exams? If so, for which grades (Germ.: Klasse) and what do these exams consist of? For those who do not have a foreign language exam, should schools offer it and if yes, for which foreign languages and why?
As part of the European Union, it is expected that students learn at least English and French in addition to their native language. Germany is no exception as the two languages are stressed in the classroom as early as possible. And with that, tests (sometimes with certificates) are administered to test the knowledge of the foreign language as well as the skills developed during their time in school and later in college- namely, listening, reading, oral, and written. Grammar serves as a bridge connecting these skills and is only taught and tested in the classroom.
I have had the privilege to participate in every single English proficiency exam, both as an administrator as well as an observer, looking at the degree of difficulty, the structure and other elements that are either beneficial or a setback to the success of the students. In other words, I have been around the block. For teachers who are about to enter the field of foreign languages at school or at the university, and for students who are going to school or to the university in Germany, here are the exams that you will most likely expect to face while in Germany. Please keep in mind, these exams are meant to foster the development of the students and are not meant to pass or fail them, yet there are some differences that you should keep in mind, speaking from experience.
Besondere Leistungsfeststellung (BLF): This exam was introduced in 2004 in response to the massacre that had occurred at the Guttenberg Gymnasium in Erfurt two years earlier. There, the person instigating the shooting spree (where 16 people were killed before he took his own life), left school without a degree, one of many reasons for his revenge. The massacre resulted in massive reforms in the education system and with that, the introduction of stringent requirements, including the BLF Exam. This exam can be found in Thuringia, Hesse and Saxony, but will most likely be found in other German states in the future. The BLF applies to subjects in German, Math, Science and a Foreign Language, in particular, English. Students in the tenth grade are required to take the BLF exam and have the entire year to prepare for it through classes and other work. This includes a year of intensive English classes, where they have the opportunity to focus on current events and cultural issues and improve on their writing, reading, listening and speaking skills. When the exam occurs close to the end of the school year, students are assigned to their examiners, and the dates are chosen by the administrators. Most of the time, they will be assigned in groups of two or three and are given 30 minutes of preparation time before the exam, as they will be given a topic to do their presentation in. These topics are sometimes based on their preferences in the class, so one can expect a presentation on US culture-related themes, for example because of their preference.
The exam is orally based and consists of three parts: The first part is small talk, where the examiner asks the students some questions about school life, their future and their favorite interests. The second part features a presentation from each student of the group of 2-3, based on the topic given for preparing. And in the third part, the students are given a scene where they play out a scene. The exam takes 30 minutes and students are given a grade in the end. That grade will represent half of the total grade for the subject for that particular year. Judging by the observations, students taking this exam are more flexible in the first part than in the rest as they have the ability to use the vocabulary and speak freely than in the other two parts. Most mistake-prone is in the second part with the presentations, where they are forced to stick to the topic and use the vocabulary pertaining to it. Add the grammar to that and for a tenth grader, it can be very difficult if there are some areas lacking.
Abitur English: Going up a notch is the Abitur exam, taken by those in the 12th or 13th grade who are on their way out of the Gymnasium and heading to college or the real world. The oral portion exam is structured like the BLF- meaning three parts with one of the parts requiring preparation time of 30 minutes before the time of the exam. In that part, the student is given a text to prepare. This usually goes first as a way of “dumping him/her into icy cold water.” Well, it is not that cruel, but the student has to answer the (unexpected) questions provided by the examiner that have to coincide with the text to test the reading comprehension- and with own words. The second and third parts of the exam comprises of conversation testing listening and oral skills, with the second part focusing on current events and the third part focusing on personal questions, etc. This includes future plans, high school life and other topics dealing with one’s life. The grade of the oral exam is combined with the grade of the written exam, which is usually given prior to the oral part. Students have a chance to choose which subject to do the Abitur, yet the final grades will influence the decision of the universities in Germany to admit or reject the applications. In other words, be aware of the Numerus Clausus when you want to apply for a degree program at the university, for if you do not have a 1,3 or better, you may not be admitted to the program of your choice. One more thing: The Abitur Exam means A-level exams in English and are applicable in Germany.
UNICERT: Developed by the Technical University of Dresden, the UNICERT exam applies to college students studying in the field of business, sciences, law and humanities. Students can receive the certificate with the grade level of I-IV, pending on which university offers what level of UNICERT certificates and what level of difficulty for languages. That means level I applies to A-B1 language niveau according to the European Language Reference, whereas level IV is up to C2 level. For example, the University of Bayreuth (Bavaria), where I taught English for a couple years offers UNICERT up to level four, whereas the University of Halle (Saxony-Anhalt) only offers UNICERT up to level two. The UNICERT is perhaps one of the most rigorous of exams, for in order to receive a UNICERT Certificate, students not only have to attend certain numbers of accredited English classes and pass the courses, but as soon as they obtained enough credits for the UNICERT exams, they have to achieve the highest possible score for the four-part exam, each part featuring reading comprehension, listening comprehension, oral communication, and essay writing based on a given theme. While both reading and listening feature questions to answer, in listening comprehension, you listen to the audio clip twice before answering the questions. In oral communication, the format is the same as in the Abitur and BLF Exams- 30 minutes of preparation time with a text with possible questions to be answered followed by 30 minutes of small talk, text questions and current event questions. Speaking from experience, while students think the UNICERT is really difficult, the teachers find preparing each and every theme for the given parts to be really difficult, for the themes must fit to the students’ field of study as well as the current events, especially if the theme suggestions are rejected, altered or accepted with reservations by other members of the language institute. But that is a different topic to be saved for a lousy day of teaching. UNICERT exams are found at many German universities, as well as those in Austria, Switzerland, France and the Czech Republic, yet they are frowned upon as being insufficient for proof of language skills for the future jobs. That is why one will see UNICERT-accredited universities mostly in the southern half of Germany, as well as Saxony, Hesse and Berlin, but are rejected in the northern half in states, like Hamburg, Lower Saxony Mecklenburg-Pommerania and Schleswig-Holstein, cities like Cologne, Frankfurt and Dusseldorf, and at almost every technical university and university of applied sciences (Fachhochschulen). But it does not mean that at these institutions where UNICERT does not exist that there are no exams to test the language proficiency of the students, as will be seen with the TOEIC.
TOEIC: TOEIC, which stands for the Test of International Communication is the most internationally recognized exam to be administered both in academia as well as in the business environment. It was first developed in the 1970s by the US-based Educational Testing Services and features two part: The Listening-Reading Test and the Speaking and Writing Test. The former features multiple choice questions and live conversations with people of different cultural backgrounds and speaking different dialects. The exam lasts 2 hours and a person can receive up to 900 points. The latter features 20 minutes of oral communication and 60 minutes of writing, and the person can receive up to 400 points. The exams are ordered by the institutions and as soon as the exams are completed, they are sent to the language testing center, where they are corrected and evaluated, and the certificates are sent to the institutions and/or examinees. Yet prior to the exam, preparation classes are required, where materials pertaining to TOEIC are used almost exclusively. One can present additional materials to class as long as they are relevant to the subjects that are covered for the exam. This makes the TOEIC the most centralized of exams and also the strictest, for guidelines must be met in order for the exam and the certificates to be valid. This is speaking from experience of a teacher who has a TOEIC Examiner License for over 4 years now. Unlike UNICERT, teachers wanting to administer TOEIC must complete training at a language center and take some additional courses to update your knowledge of TOEIC. These can cost some money, but the training is worth it. TOEIC can be found at almost all the Fachhochschulen, universities that do not have UNICERT, and several business institutions. They are open for both students and adults alike, including those who are unemployed and are changing careers.
Note: TOEIC rivals the exams administered by Cambridge University and Trinity School of London as they follow similar guidelines, yet these exams can be found at the universities and institutions of continuing education (Volkshochschulen). More information about the TOEIC can be found here
So which exams are the toughest? Speaking from experience as a teacher, the exams can be compared to a flight of stairs a person has to go up in order to succeed. That means for students, the BLF is perhaps the easiest and the first step, whereas the UNICERT is the most difficult. Abitur and TOEIC are right in the middle. But this is in regards to the degree of difficulty that is expected. However, from the teacher’s point of view, the TOEIC is perhaps the easiest as there is little preparation time and the materials are provided. It is just a matter of following the units and ensure that you have an agenda to follow for the students in order to achieve the unit. The UNICERT is the most difficult for you need to develop the test and course curriculum yourself. While the course portion is not a problem if you are doing that individually and develop your own guidelines that fits the UNICERT requirements, when you work together with your colleagues at the university, you can run into several conflicts which can turn a harmonious relation into guerrilla warfare, which could make working together be a discord, and most times, the students taking the exam suffer in the end. But if asked which certificate would be most suitable for any job after school, then clearly the TOEIC would be the choice, for the Abitur is only a bridge to entering college and may be difficult to be accepted by the employer, and the UNICERT is restricted to Germany and the European stage. But before proving your knowledge of a foreign language like English through certificates, it is best to work with the language so that you have enough confidence and skills mustered to pursue the Abitur, UNICERT or TOEIC. It is given that a proficiency exam, like the BLF will be given in the 10th grade. But for the others, the best way to master this success is interaction with others with native-speaker knowledge or even the native speaker him/herself. Sometimes a trip to that country for half a year will do the trick.
What about other foreign language proficiency exams in the schools? Apart from BLF, what other exams exist in the German Bundesländern? Place your comments here or in the Files’ facebook page or send the author a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t forget to share your thoughts about foreign language proficiency exams in the US, as mentioned at the beginning of this article.