General attainment at SAT/high school level in the US
Thread poster: Neil Coffey

Neil Coffey  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 19:12
French to English
+ ...
Sep 1, 2011

I come from a UK background and my context for posing this question is that I'm developing some language software and want to make sure that it is suited to my US as well as UK audiences. So I'd appreciate some feedback in particular from any language teachers in the US or those who were recently language students in the US.

In high schools in the UK, students generally have language classes for 4-5 years before taking a GCSE exam which is fairly basic: syllabuses typically have a prescribed vocabulary of in the order of 1,500 words and various key areas of grammar (such as the subjunctive and compound tenses except the 'passé composé' in French) are to all intents and purposes ignored. GCSE also has an ethos of generally not deliberately trying to "trick" students, so e.g. they wouldn't specifically have a question focussing on knowing a particular 'faux ami'. And obviously there's huge variation in the actual attainment of students, so yes, better students may well do, say, a short essay on the problems of drug addiction, while at the lower end of the spectrum is a base of students spending 5 years struggling to learn the names of fruit.

Now, with all that in mind, I was looking at a small example of SAT material (as I understand, designed to test students after 3-4 years of language study, so more or less comparable with British GCSEs in principle) and it struck me that the material was of a slightly higher level (as an example, I was looking here: ). Even allowing for students being expected to intuit the meanings of unfamiliar words similar to English (e.g. "prudent", "assure"), it's clear that the level goes beyond the "core" 1,500-ish word GCSE vocabulary. And unlike the GCSE ethos, I see a question deliberately focussing on the faux ami "l'habit", and a test of a relative construction "à ceux envers qui..." probably more complex than would be required after an average 5-year high school course in the UK.

So here's my question: to what extent do students in the US realistically attain the level exhibited by this example SAT test, and after how many years? Is it a target that most students aim towards (at least theoretically in terms of the exam they're required to take), or in reality do most students take languages at a lower level and is there another exam/curriculum that I should be focussing on to catch "mainstream" learners?

Many thanks for people's input!


Miranda Drew  Identity Verified
Local time: 20:12
Italian to English
the SAT is designed for students planning to go to university Sep 1, 2011

The SAT is taken only by students who intend to go to university, because when you apply the universities take your SAT scores into consideration. There is no final general exam to finish high school in the US. I remember that the language part of the SAT is much harder than the math part, most people, even language-oriented students, do better on the match part.
I don't know on average what part of high school students go to university in the US overall, that would be something to consider when trying to figure out the level of your "average" user.


S E (X)
Local time: 20:12
Italian to English
foreign language study K-12 varies in the US & SAT subject test-takers are somewhat self-selecting Sep 1, 2011

Hi Neil,

There are so many different choices for elementary and secondary school in the US, that it might be difficult to make a generalization.

As Miranda said, the SAT is a test taken as part of the college/university admissions process. But American students who go to college come from extraordinarily diverse educational backgrounds (and US colleges and universities are themselves an extremely diverse group).

Using myself as an example, I went to a private grade school and studied French from the first grade. Then I went to a college preparatory high school, continuing my French studies for the first three years. That's eleven years of French.

From what I understand, SAT subject tests are meant to help applicants show off their special skills. I would think that students taking the SAT subject test in French would feel they have a special level of mastery and want to show it off.

For general college admissions, only the general SAT is required, which when I took it consisted of an English language section, a quantitative (math) section, and a qualitative (logic) section.

The Chronicle of Higher Education website should have statistics of college attendence and completion.

I hope that this helps,


[Edited at 2011-09-01 12:20 GMT]


Alma Ramirez  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:12
Member (2009)
English to Spanish
+ ...
SAT subject test Sep 1, 2011

I am not a teacher but my three children had gone through these tests. There are two types of SAT tests for High School students, the SAT Reasoning Test and SAT subject tests. The link you mentioned is for the subject tests which are more specific to certain areas and deeper in the knowledge. There are some universities that require the subject tests, but in general the students only take the general SAT. There is another test, ACT, which is similar and most universities use it for admission purposes too. Many students take both tests (sometimes more than once) since the universities take the best scores into consideration. Here is a link for examples of the SAT test portions of reading comprehension, sentence completion, etc. and also a link for test samples on the ACT test.

I hope it is useful.


LegalTransform  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 14:12
Member (2002)
Spanish to English
+ ...
SAT-II, AP and CLEP tests Sep 1, 2011

Hi Neil,

There are several language examinations and each individual college or university chooses which exam they require current or potential students to take.

I took the Spanish, French and German SAT-II subject specialty tests during my senior year in college (the Italian one was not available at the time and you could only take three subject exams during one three-four hour exam session). Being a college student, I was not the typical test taker and I was doing so just to see where I stood (in terms of percentiles) with other language students.

There are books available for students to prepare for these exams. Amazon allows you to browse a few of them:

As a I recall, the tests are at a high level, but are generally geared towards students who have taken what we can AP (advanced placement) language courses in high school. In some cases, AP courses can be equivalent to college courses. At the end of an AP course, students take the AP examination and if they pass, they will earn college credit (in addition to high school credit) for the course.


Another popular examination for language study is the CLEP exam. (college level examination program):

I took this one for Spanish. It allows you to take a test in a certain subjects and either get credit for or avoid the need to take certain prerequisite classes.

Hope this helps.

[Edited at 2011-09-02 05:50 GMT]


Phil Hand  Identity Verified
Local time: 02:12
Chinese to English
Dunno if ancient languages are comparable Sep 1, 2011

I did an A-level and SATs in Latin, and the A-level was at a much much higher level (I got full marks or close enough). It's a bit hard to think back and compare, but I think I would have done OK at GCSE level.

They're a bit different because they're so multiple-choice oriented. If you've got limited scope to test grammar and production, the only way to increase difficulty is to do trickier vocab testing.


Neil Coffey  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 19:12
French to English
+ ...
So no lower-level test? Sep 1, 2011

Thanks for all who have replied so far-- your comments are very enlightening.

So as I understand it, the SAT is closer to UK A-Levels, individual subject exams taken at around 18 years essentially as a requirement for university entrance-- for example, typically after a total of 6-7 years of study in a subject, with 2 of those years being more specialist study (e.g. dedicating the 2 years to just 3 or 4 subjects).

Is there then no other more "intermediate" exam in the US? (GCSEs are typically taken at 15-16 years after 4 or 5 years of study.) The thing I'm mainly trying to do is give people a "reference" so they have a rough idea of the level of study I'm targeting. In the UK, if I say "GCSE level" people immediately know I'm talking about 'the basic level that you'd achieve after a few years at school' even though in practice they could be adult learners and/or not interested in taking exams per se.

Is there an equivalent exam or defined 'level' in the US, or if not maybe I'm best just saying "intermediate high school level" or something like that?


Lori Cirefice  Identity Verified
Local time: 20:12
French to English
none that I can think of? Sep 1, 2011

Neil Coffey wrote:

Is there then no other more "intermediate" exam in the US?

There really is no standardized testing of foreign languages at a high school intermediate level, either you pass the class or you don't!

Google brought me here, maybe it will be of interest to you.


Jenn Mercer  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 14:12
Member (2009)
French to English
No standard test Sep 1, 2011


There is not any standard low-level test that I know of in the U.S. I can say that, in my experience, I could not imagine a language test above the level of a weekly quiz that had a restricted vocabulary.

I did not take the SAT specialty tests, but I can attest that the AP tests which are designed to determine whether students can replace a college level course are at a quite high level. I took the AP Spanish test and in the prep course we were expected to know all the tenses, backwards and forwards which is quite a task in Spanish. (you may note I am now a French to English translatoricon_wink.gif.


Arianne Farah  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:12
Member (2008)
English to French
This might help Sep 2, 2011

quote: "General Educational Development (or GED) tests are a group of five subject tests which, when passed, certify that the taker has American or Canadian high school-level academic skills."


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General attainment at SAT/high school level in the US

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