At FSI, the festivity of the holiday season has been overshadowed by the fervor of the language test season. In that spirit, I'd like to propose a radical idea - get rid of the language test. This is not a knee-jerk reaction to getting a bad grade on my first progress test (I did better than I had hoped), but based on my own experience and the experience of colleagues, State should seriously consider eliminating the language test. Here's why.
The most important reason is that passing "the test" has become more important than the true purpose of language training - preparing diplomats for their jobs overseas. How much class time is spent practicing for the test and learning tricks for getting a good score? ("Don't forget to start the speaking at length portion by saying, 'This morning I will speak to you on the topic of computers.'") I admit that test-taking skills often overlap with skills that will actually be useful in our jobs, but that is a fortunate coincidence, not necessarily by design.
Secondly, the test is a sword of Damocles hanging over the head of untenured junior officers. JOs need to pass the test to be eligible for tenure; therefore, the test becomes a painful distraction. The test is also used to measure, to some extent, the success or failure of instructors and sections. Think about the consequences of that.
Lastly, as any language student (and a fair number of instructors) will tell you, the test does not accurately measure a person's language proficiency. Nerves, a poor choice of topics, and even lucky guesses can affect a student's score.
I'm not sure what an appropriate alternative would be. Perhaps a panel of instructors observing students in class over a period of several days. Or students get to prepare a presentation on a topic of their choice followed by a Q&A session by instructors. I don't know what the answer is. But I think it's worth considering that the focus FSI puts on "the test" does not prepare students for their jobs. If you're lucky, your instructor will be able to balance both goals. If you're not lucky...