WebCAPE - Language Placement Testing over the Web

  1. 1. Charles D. Bush

    Brigham Young University

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WebCAPE is a web-based implementation of the BYU Computer-Adaptive Placement Exam (CAPE) series. These exams use adaptive procedures to assess language ability, drawing from a large bank of calibrated test items. Tests are administered from a web server computer through the internet to a browser application on students' computers. Test security in WebCAPE is maintained through a combination of application design and standard web methods.


Students entering a university language program come with a wide range of previous language training and experience. Thus, determining which class students should enroll in becomes an enormous task for language departments. A placement exam can be used, but paper-based standardized placement exams bring their own headaches: students have to be brought in at a fixed time and place, the test takes a long time to take and everyone has to wade through all the questions, and then you have to wait while the tests are sent in for scoring and for the results to come back.

The Humanities Research Center at Brigham Young University has developed a set of language placement exams that overcome these problems. The exams are delivered by computer and thus do not require a lock-step controlled environment. The exams are adaptive, effectively eliminating questions far above or below the students' ability. And since questions are drawn from a large bank of test items, each student gets what amounts to a unique test, thus avoiding problems with test security. The computer-adaptive approach also means the test need only take long enough to determine a particular student's ability level and produces a placement score on the spot.

Underlying the BYU CAPE (Computer-Adaptive Placement Exam) application is a large bank of calibrated test items. Initially, several hundred questions were written, testing a variety of language skills: vocabulary, grammar, reading comprehension, etc. These were then statistically calibrated for difficulty and discrimination among ability levels. Test item banks have been developed for Spanish, German, French, Russian, and most recently, English as a Second Language.

Originally CAPE tests were implemented as individual application programs. But more recently, a new implementation has been developed for an internet/web environment. This version, called WebCAPE, uses a web server for the core functionality and test item banks, but administers the actual tests over the internet through a standard browser application. Thus WebCAPE tests can be given on any computer with an internet connection and Netscape 4.0 or equivalent.

How It Works

Students enter WebCAPE through their school's menu page. This page is customized for the school, incorporating their seal or logo, a background campus scene, and school colors into the page design. Page content includes a brief explanation of the tests and how the school utilizes their results, along with basic instructions for taking the test.

When students select their language from the menu page, they go to a registration page. This page is also specific to the school. Students enter their identification information in the top section of the page. They may also enter their e-mail address for an e-mail copy of their test results.

Clicking the Begin Exam button takes students into the actual exam. After some initialization, a new browser window opens to the exam environment. This is served completely from the WebCAPE server and is the same for all tests. The top frame contains title information. The middle section displays the current test item. The bottom frame contains the exam control panel where the students indicate their answer, then click Confirm Response to register their response.

First, the exam presents six level check questions selected from the full difficulty range. Based on these answers, the algorithm computes a preliminary ability estimate. It then begins to probe with questions to fine-tune that estimate. In essence, it presents harder and easier questions until it can focus to a statistically reliable value. On average, the entire testing process takes 20-25 minutes.

When the exam finishes, students are returned to the registration page and their results are posted in the bottom section of the page. Here their final ability estimate is mapped to a recommended course by reference to a table of cut-off points established by the school. Beginning and ending time-stamps are also posted, for validation and timing purposes. In addition, the exam returns details of the students' session. These are not normally displayed for the student to see, but are sent to the school for analysis.

As a final step, students click Submit Results. This generates an e-mail message with all of the information to the school/department and a summary message to the student's e-mail address. A confirmation page is also generated by this process, which in turn takes them back to the menu page, ready for the next student.


WebCAPE is designed to be reasonably secure for its intended use. Access control is maintained through the menu page, registration pages only accept entrance from a corresponding menu page, and the exam environment can only be entered from a properly configured registration page. Both are maintained on the WebCAPE server and isolated from outside access. The host school controls access to their menu page, typically by either setting up links or bookmarks in the lab where they administer the exam, or by only giving the URL to their properly registered students. When needed, the WebCAPE server can also be configured to restrict access to a particular IP address or range (a designated lab, for example), or to require a userID and password.

Test security is maintained mostly by the design of the page set. Test items are individual html files that do not contain answer information or other clues. The answer key is read into the programming of the control frame when it loads. And should a student manage to hack into the answer table, there is no way to identify which answer goes with which question. At the server level, hackers are thwarted by the built-in resistance of the server and operating system configuration.

Foolproofing security is more problematic. Because it uses a standard internet browser, WebCAPE cannot keep students from doing things the browser allows: like closing the window or using the back button or even quitting the browser program entirely. All that can be done is to write clear instructions and incorporate warning alerts. This suggests administering WebCAPE tests in a controlled environment (like a student lab) with a standardized browser configuration and a proctor to monitor things.

The biggest vulnerability to cheating in WebCAPE comes at the student workstations. The exam cannot prevent students from using a dictionary, getting help from friends or even having someone else take the test. This clearly demands a proctored environment.

WebCAPE test security measures mentioned thus far try to prevent cheating to get a higher score. But students taking a placement test may also try to get a lower score. The current version of WebCAPE does not directly address this problem. However the results message it sends to the department does include details of the test session, which can be analyzed when needed - an alert human would immediately suspect a test with all-wrong answers. Other suspicious patterns like all-one-letter answers or only a few seconds between answers can also be easily recognized by a human. The next version of WebCAPE will probably include processing to at least flag patterns such as these.

Ultimately there may still be a few students that get misplaced, either by faking out the test or by slipping through the statistical margin of error. These will still have to be dealt with by human administrative procedures. But WebCAPE should keep the number small enough to manage.


WebCAPE is implemented as a service rather than as a program package. Schools pay for access for their students to take the tests rather than buy the program itself. For most schools, the best alternative is a flat fee for unlimited tests, but a lower-cost option for a fixed number of tests is also available. In each case there is also a one-time setup fee for creating the customized menu and registration pages. Planning is underway to also implement a pay-per-test entrance to WebCAPE. This would allow someone to take the test on their own initiative to see how they might place into college-level courses. A third configuration as a high school exit exam has been proposed. This would be for high school language programs, allowing students to find out where they would place into college courses.


WebCAPE is currently available for French, German and Spanish, with Russian to be added shortly. For all four languages, the test items are strictly text-based questions. While different test items assess different aspects of language ability, they are still confined to written text. But the latest CAPE exam under development, English-as-a-Second-Language, goes beyond that text-only limit. ESL-CAPE incorporates sound clips into many test items and thus adds listening comprehension to the language skills it assesses. ESL-CAPE also has an option to calculate separate ability estimate scores for grammar, reading comprehension, and listening comprehension - the other exams only give a composite estimate. A stand-alone implementation of ESL-CAPE is now being piloted. Web implementation will be ready for production testing next year.

Selected Bibliography

Madsen, Harold S. and Larson, Jerry W. (1985). Computerized Adaptive Language Testing: Moving Beyond Computer Assisted Testing. CALICO Journal 2.3 (March 1985), pp 32-36.
Larson, Jerry W. (1989). S-CAPE: A Spanish Computerized Adaptive Placement Exam. William Flint Smith, ed., Modern Technology in Foreign Language Education: Applications and Projects. ACTFL Foreign Language Education series: National Textbook Co. Skokie, IL. pp 277-289.
Larson, Jerry W. (1996). Computerized Adaptive Placement Exams in French, German, Russian, and Spanish. Foreign Language Notes, Newsletter of Foreign Language Educators of New Jersey, Spring 1996, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2, pp. 13-15.
Larson, Jerry W. (1996). An Argument for Computer Adaptive Language Testing. Methods and Applications of CALL for Foreign Language Education in Korean Universities. Proceedings of the Conference on Applications of Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL), Dongduck Women's University. Seoul, Korea, November 29, 1996. pp. 51-80.

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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at University of Glasgow

Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom

July 21, 2000 - July 25, 2000

104 works by 187 authors indexed

Affiliations need to be double-checked.

Conference website: https://web.archive.org/web/20190421230852/https://www.arts.gla.ac.uk/allcach2k/

Series: ALLC/EADH (27), ACH/ICCH (20), ACH/ALLC (12)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

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  • Language: English
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