English as a Second Language (ESL) Placement Test

The ACT Compass® ESL tests allow you to test non-native English speakers' abilities in four areas—Listening, Reading, Grammar/Usage, and Essay—and place them in appropriate ESL courses.

ESL Listening

This test assesses a student's ability to understand Standard American English. Listening tasks increase in difficulty across multiple proficiency levels with the rate of speech, vocabulary, diction, and use of idiomatic and metaphorical language all increasing at higher levels. As listening stimuli increase in length at the highest levels, students are allowed to take notes as they would in a lecture setting. The intent of the test is to measure listening skills rather than short-term memory.

Research shows that native speakers often modify their speech when they are speaking to nonproficient second-language listeners. As a result, at the lower proficiency levels the test uses speech that a beginning-level ESL student might encounter in face-to-face situations. Dialogues also are designed to sound like real conversations rather than like two people reading text.

Items range from recognizing pictures that go with spoken words or phrases at the lowest level to answering inferential questions about overall academic materials at the highest levels.


ESL Reading

This English placement test assesses a student's ability to recognize and manipulate Standard American English in two major categories:

  • Referring (reading explicitly stated material)
  • Reasoning (inferential reading)

The content of these areas will vary on the test according to levels of English proficiency, with more emphasis on Referring at the lower levels and more on Reasoning at the higher levels.

Most materials are reading passages, ranging in length from several sentences to many paragraphs. Most passages are authentic, although they may be edited, especially at the lower proficiency levels. Students also may be asked to interpret photographs, tables, charts, or graphs, or to follow directions using a map or other diagram.

Items range from recognizing pictures that go with words at the lowest level to answering inferential questions about academic materials at the highest levels.


ESL Grammar/Usage

This English placement test assesses a student's ability to recognize and manipulate Standard American English in two main areas:

  • Sentence Elements
  • Sentence Structure and Syntax

Sentence Elements include verbs, subjects and objects, modifiers, function words, conventions (punctuation, capitalization, spelling), and word formation.

Sentence Structure and Syntax include word order, relationships between and among clauses, and agreement, as well as how grammar relates to communication beyond the sentence level.

Some items in the ESL Grammar/Usage test use a modified cloze format, with blanks in sentences and choices to fill in the blanks. When students click on an answer, the program places their selection into the blank so it can be read in context. Other items in this test offer a question with four options, based on a reading passage. These items test students' understanding of how words function within a text.


ESL Essay (ESL e-Write)

This English placement test provides analytic scores in the areas of Development, Language Use, Organization, Focus, and Mechanics with an overall score based on a weighted composite of the analytic scores.