None/little Speaking Ability:
After you pay you tuition and fees you will go to a room to have an interview with someone. If you have no speaking abilities, you just tell them and a oral interview will not be conducted. They will put you in the beginning class which uses the Audio Visual 1 textbook. If you have some prior speaking experience, they will ask you some simple questions and from there decide which level they think is more appropriate for you to go into. The Audio Textbook is divided into 5 books, with Audio Book 5 being the highest.
Good/Great Speaking Ability:
If you grew up in a Mandarin speaking environment or have had previous schooling in Mandarin, you will be given the reading/writing test after your oral interview. Unless, you tell them you have absolute no experience in reading or writing, such as never attending Chinese School. You will then be placed in the Beginning Reading/Writing class. If not you are given 1 hour to complete the reading/writing test to see what level best fits you. One of the teachers helping out will grade it and decide what book you should start on, as well as what lesson from that book.
Both these routes will start you off as a new student. As a person with little or no speaking background you may find yourself working off the Audio Book and going up to the 5th book if you should choose to do so. Also, at the end of each term you are tested in your proficiency of what you learned to see if you are suitable enough to move on. However, if you are in the Reading/Writing textbooks, then you get to choose what book/material you want to cover the following term. This of course, is also up to the consent of your current teacher and what they recommend is best for you. It is not wise to jump to a very high level if you are at a lower level.
Please refer to the picture below for an outline of all the different levels. I am not positive on what every book focuses on more, but below marked in red and blue are the more commonly used books I have seen students with.
Red = Audio/Listening textbooks to improve on listening/speaking ability.
Blue= Reading Writing books for those who can speak but barely read and write.
A common route for the red: Audio Visual I -> Audio Visual 2 -> Audio Visual 3 -> Audio Visual 4 or Practical Business Conversations -> etc
A common route for the blue: Beginning level readings -> Intermediate level readings -> Business readings or Newspapers Readings I -> Newspaper Readings II -> Newspaper Readings III -> etc
Note: You do not have to follow a path like this, as there are many choices after you complete a level. Always consult with your teacher to see what they recommend you take.
Also, if you are starting from level 1, it generally takes about 2 years to reach a higher level like 7, 8, 9. However, being at a mid level doesn't necessarily mean your level isn't high either. The levels don't mean much depending on how much/fast you learn and your teacher as well. Please refer to the teachers section for more information.