SOPI: In Need of a Revision: Shortcomings of the Simulated Oral Proficiency Interview (SOPI)

Julia Mikhailova, Emory University

In my recent research comparing the two tests, the OPI (Oral Proficiency Interview) and the SOPI (Simulated Oral Proficiency Interview), with regard to the speech function of description, I uncovered that the SOPI has a number of shortcomings. First, the SOPI is not designed around the same understanding of description as the OPI: the SOPI treats description as an Intermediate level function, while in the OPI, according to the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, description is one of two core functions of Advanced level performance. Essentially, this means that a SOPI description does not require of speakers cohesive discourse of paragraph-length, and apparently, a number of discrete sentences may suffice in response to the description prompt.

Second, it appears that the definition of “description” is problematic in the SOPI format. The SOPI uses the word “describe” to refer to the concept of what I would argue should be considered “narrate”. According to the ACTFL OPG, description is a function that conveys the characteristics of a person, place or an object; however, the one SOPI “description prompt” asks for a description of an event. The analysis of SOPI data demonstrates that many students (and some native speakers) provide a narration (in ACTFL OPG terms) in response to the SOPI “description prompt”, rather than a description.

Third, SOPI’s misleading and ambiguous definition of a “paragraph-like” discourse does not have clearly marked requirements of what is considered a paragraph and its criteria. Consequently such a definition poses questions: How does the SOPI assign Advanced and Intermediate-High ratings without explicit requirements for Advanced-level text-type? And under what circumstances is a response considered a paragraph in the SOPI rating? The loose definition raises questions about the integrity of the SOPI ratings, because, for instance, there might conceivably be lengthy replies without cohesion that are designated “paragraph-like” only by virtue of their length.

Fourth, the SOPI “description prompt” is based on the cultural norms and knowledge of American culture. As a result, international students lacking knowledge of American cultural norms or even Americans of some religious background might be unable to handle the task of “description” in the SOPI because of a cultural and/or religious bias.

The results of my analysis imply that the SOPI, one of the major testing tools in the foreign languages field, simply does not elicit description. This suggests that the entire test is unreliable for ratings at the advanced and superior levels. Unless the test is revised to reflect the ACTFL OPG and requirements of Advanced level speech, the SOPI test cannot be considered a valid testing tool in the foreign language field at the levels Intermediate High and above.