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Language Testing for Higher Education

A Language Testing Scenario for Group or Individual Study
Prof. Glenn Fulcher

Return to Scenario Selection

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Introduction
Language testing for higher education is extremely widespread, and most of it is English testing for academic purposes. Score users are normally academic institutions who wish to know whether an international student has the language abilities necessary to succeed in an academic environment. Of course, an admissions tutor in a University will take many factors into account when making a decision. These factors may include previous learning experience and evidence of content knowledge, references from previous teachers, personal statements, and even indications of personability, ability to work with others, and enthusiasm. If the applicant is a postgraduate it is common to take into account the ranking of the University from which they received their first degree. In addition, the tutor will wish to be reasonably certain that the applicant will be able to read the texts expected of first year students, take part in seminars, tutorials and lectures, and crucially to write assignments in the relevant academic genre. Universities offer both pre- and in-sessional language support programmes that may provide additional assistance. Students are frequently referred to such programmes if their scores on the language test are within the error range of the established cut-score for admission.

Testing English for Academic Purposes (EAP) is now a huge industry. The first thing we need to consider is just why English has become the primary language of higher education, not only in countries where English is the first language, but increasingly around the world (see this paper by Coleman on the use of English in Europe). In his book English as a Global Language, and this YouTube video, David Crystal argues that it is because of power: the language of science and the language of economics has been English for the last 400 years. This has given English, and English medium Universities, both status and advantage. Studying in these Universities has therefore become a goal of more and more international students, as their programs are perceived to provide more opportunities and career enhancement. As a result English language testing has expanded rapidly and is now a multi-million pound industry with the main test providers competing fiercely for market share.


A Brief Overview of Three Tests
There are many English for academic purposes tests on the market. However, the three dominant tests are the TOEFL, from Educational Testing Service, IELTS from the Cambridge/British Council/IDP partnership, and the PTE Academic from Pearson Assessment.

TOEFL
The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) was originally developed in the 1960s, but underwent a major retrofit in readiness for the release of the internet based test (iBT) in 2005. You can read about the retrofit in a book by Chapelle et al. (2008). ETS has long developed tests for University access, including the GRE and the College Board's SAT. In this YouTube video, released by ETS for its 60th anniversary, the CEO of the company explains the rationale behind the work: to provide meritocratic means of giving access to Universities - an aim that goes back to the 1930s. The TOEFL iBT is a linear test, even though its CBT predecessor was computer adaptive. Other novel features include the use of integrated tasks. The format is as follows:

Section Time Limit Questions Tasks
Reading 60-100 minutes 36-70 questions Read 3-5 passages from academic texts and answer questions.
Listening 60-90 minutes 34-51 questions Express an opinion on a familiar topic; speak based on reading and listening tasks.
Break 10 minutes - -
Speaking 20 minutes 6 tasks Express an opinion on a familiar topic; speak based on reading and listening tasks.
Writing 50 minutes 2 tasks Write essay responses based on reading and listening tasks; support an opinion in writing.

Sample test questions are available from the test producer, and independent test reviews are available. Research on the test is available online here.

IELTS
Similarly the International English Language Testing System has undergone many retrofits since its inception in the late 1970s. Much of this is documented in Davies (2008), which also contains sample test tasks from various versions of the test. IELTS had two forerunners in the United Kingdom. The first was the English Proficiency Test Battery (EPTB), which was developed in the 1960s by Alan Davies. This was superseded by the English Language Testing Service in the late 1970s. ELTS differed from IELTS primarily in the provision of subject-specific modules in additional to a general academic module: life sciences, medicine, physical science, social studies, and technology. Following a number of studies, including an ELTS validation study, IELTS was launched in 1989. The major change was the removal of the subject specific (ESP) modules, primarily because research had shown that given the generality of the material in the test, subject specific knowledge did not provide an advantage on a subject specific test (Clapham, 1996). Further retrofits have taken place at intervals since its introduction. The format is as follows:

Section Time Limit Questions
Listening 30 minutes 40 questions
Reading 60 minutes 40 questions
Writing 60 minutes 2 tasks (150 - 250 words)
Speaking 11 - 14 minutes -

Sample materials are available from the test producer. Research Reports are also freely available.

Pearson PTE
The PTE Academic was rolled out in 2009 with the explicit aim of taking market share away from the two established tests (see the review of 2009). In this YouTube Video Professor John de Jong introduces the test. It differs from the others primarily in the fact that testing is 'on demand' rather than on set test dates, and the scores are issued within 5 working days. This speed is achieved through the use of automated scoring, even for the speaking component. For an introduction to automated scoring see the video on this topic by Xiaoming Xi. PTE Academic also claims to have the most advanced biometric test security system to ensure that ghost writers cannot take tests on behalf of others. The format of this computer based test is as follows:

Section Time Limit Questions Tasks
Introduction Not timed - -
Speaking and Writing 77 - 93 minutes Speaking, speaking and reading, speaking and listening, writing. Personal introduction, reading aloud, repeating sentences, describing a picture, re-tell a lecture, answer short questions, summarize a text, write an essay.
Reading 132 - 41 minutes reading, reading and writing. Multiple-choice, re-order paragraphs, blank filling.
Optional Break 10 minutes - -
Listening 45 - 57 minutes Listening, listening and reading, listening and writing. Summarize spoken text, multiple-choice, blank filling, highlight correct summary, select missing words, highlight incorrect words, write from dictation.

A complete test overview is available in this tutorial. Pearson makes available a number of scored (for a fee) and unscored (free) practice tests. Pearson makes its research available on this website.


Marketing
Providers of tests of English for University entry are in competition with each other and therefore promote their tests widely. This is particularly the case with social media and the internet. ETS, Cambridge and Pearson all have YouTube channels. The latest video from each of these companies is imported here.

The TOEFL® test is celebrating its 50th anniversary!
Jennifer Brown, the head of the TOEFL® Program at ETS, has an exciting announcement for you — the TOEFL® test is celebrating its 50th anniversary! More than ... From: TOEFLtv Views: 11594 14 ratings Time: 00:15 More in Education
Posted on 29 September, 2014


Classroom ideas for Cambridge English: Key & Preliminary for Schools
This webinar gives an introduction to teachers of our Cambridge English: Key and Preliminary for Schools exams. The presenter will outline the format and tas... From: cambridgeenglishtv Views: 802 9 ratings Time: 47:01 More in Education
Posted on 21 November, 2014


What to expect at a Pearson test centre
Want to know what it will be like when you arrive at a Pearson test centre? This video shows you what to expect. From: PearsonPTE Views: 148 5 ratings Time: 01:56 More in Education
Posted on 7 October, 2014


Testing and Immigration
In many European countries and Australia language testing for University entrance has become wrapped up in immigration policy (see Extra et al., Hogan-Brun et al., and Slade et al.). This is partly because countries have tried to attract students into higher education with the promise that on graduation they may stay and work, and that their spouses may obtain a work permit while they are studying. When the financial and economic climate is not so good these are usually withdrawn. Also, a reduction in student numbers is one of the few ways that governments can be seen to control immigration. In this news clip from the United Kingdom the controversy is clear. On the one hand students are seen as vital to the economy, while on the other politicians wish to restrict student visas and insist that students return home at the end of their studies. The use of set scores on language tests as a criterion for issuing student visas is the easiest way to implement such policies, but it is a highly controversial practice.


For Discussion

  1. The primary users of language test scores for higher education are admissions tutors. Do a Google search on 'admissions tutor': what precisely is their job? Can you think of other kinds of information they may take into account apart from those listed above? What are the consequences of making a poor decision?
  2. Look at sample materials from the three tests mentioned on this page, along with the overview of the test from the website of the test provider. In what ways are they similar? How is each one distinctive? Are there any features that you think are particularly attractive or problematic?
  3. Each of the tests listed on this page publishes research into the validity of the test for its intended purpose. What kinds of evidence does each present? Select one piece of research and write a critical review.
  4. Tests are designed for particular purposes. The constructs, skills, abilities or knowledge that the test is designed to measure are defined in the test specifications. The tests described on this page are all intended to serve the same decision making purpose. For this reason decision makers sometimes wish to have score comparisons, like this one produced by ETS: Score Comparison Tool. You can also find a link on this page to the research conducted to construct this tool. Why do you think admissions tutors wish to have this kind of information even though it is very difficult to compare results on tests that are not generated by the same specifications?
  5. Look at the news links on the right side of this web page. Choose one or two that look interesting and/or controversial. What are the issues that are of concern to the wider public in language testing for University entry?
  6. Using these language tests in immigration policy is highly controversial and raises many ethical issues. But as Bishop (2004) correctly argues there is nothing in the Standards for Educational and Psychological Assessment, or even the ILTA Code of Ethics, that clearly makes such use unethical. Yet, it makes many language testers uneasy. Why do you think this is the case? What is your position on this use of tests?
  7. When designing domain specific tests it can be useful to have access to a corpus like the Michigan Corpus of Academic English (MICASE). Look at examples of specific speech events from this corpus. How might you use this data in researching a test of spoken academic English?

Latest HE Language Testing News

Blocking accreditation of English language exam 'may harm UK universities' - Times Higher Education
Posted on 26 November, 2014

Times Higher Education

Blocking accreditation of English language exam 'may harm UK universities'
Times Higher Education
ETS said large numbers of British universities ? including 70 per cent of the Russell Group ? were accepting overseas students with the TOEFL qualification under ?vouching? provis...


Duolinguo launcht App für TOEFL Test - webmagazin
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Über 30 Millionen Arbeitssuchende und Studenten müssen einen solchen Test ablegen, um sich überhaupt bewerben zu können. IELTS und TOEFL Test können nur zu bestimmten Terminen in dafür ausgewählten Test-Centern abgelegt werden und kosten ......


Úc s? d?ng thêm hai th? th?c ki?m tra ti?ng Anh m?i cho ng??i mu?n xin visa - Vi?t Times Australia
Posted on 24 November, 2014

Vi?t Times Australia

Úc s? d?ng thêm hai th? th?c ki?m tra ti?ng Anh m?i cho ng??i mu?n xin visa
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... di?n lao ??ng có tay ngh?, làm vi?c hay du l?ch hay nh?ng ng??i xin visa ??nh c? tr??c ?ây có th? s? d?ng ch?ng ch? ti?ng Anh TOEFL thi qua m?ng (TOEFL iBT) và ch?ng ch? ti?ng An...


More English test options for applicants for Australian visas - Global Times
Posted on 23 November, 2014

More English test options for applicants for Australian visas
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"Applicants are now able to use scores from the Test of English Language as a Foreign Language internet-based test (TOEFL iBT) and the Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic) as evidence of their English language abi...


Study plan - The Hindu
Posted on 23 November, 2014

The New Indian Express

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As students are increasingly looking for opportunities to study abroad, clearing the English language test, is a challenge they are constantly grappling with. IELTS (the International English Language Testing System) is offered in more than 1,000 ...
'It's ...


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An international standard
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KUEN Cheng High School has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Eshia & Associates Sdn Bhd as the first school in the country to adopt the TOEFL Junior Standard test, part of the TOEFL Young Students Series, for all its Junior One incoming ...



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Report by India Education bureau, Jalandhar: The British Council marked the 25th anniversary of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) in Jalandhar this week, as part of a nation...


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UEPA inscreve para exame de proeficiência TOEFL
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A Universidade do Estado do Pará (Uepa) agora é mais um Centro Aplicador do teste de proficiência de língua inglesa reconhecido mundialmente, o TOEFL/ITP. As inscrições encerram no dia 3 de novembro e podem ser feitas pelo site da insituição.



Pearson Test of English Academic accepted by the Australian Government for ... - afaqs
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Pearson Test of English Academic accepted by the Australian Government for ...
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Pearson, the World's leading learning company, today announced that the Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic) has been approved by the Australian Government Department of Immigration and Border Protection...



Links to Websites

Posted on 25 November, 2014
Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic)
PTE Academic is a computer-based test which assesses the Listening, Reading, Speaking and Writing abilities of non-native speakers of English who need to ...

Posted on 25 November, 2014
Learn About Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic)
What is Pearson Test of English (PTE) Academic? PTE Academic is a computer-based test for international students. It is accepted by business schools such as London ...

Posted on 25 November, 2014
Pearson Test of English - about the PTE General and PTE ...
Pearson Tests of English (PTE) The following tests are available from Pearson: The Pearson Test of English Academic PTE Academic is a computer-based academic English ...

Posted on 25 November, 2014
IELTS, Pearson Test of English (PTE) and Cambridge English ...
This is the 'IELTS, Pearson Test of English (PTE) and Cambridge English' page on the 'Enrolment Management Services' website at the 'University of Kent'.

Posted on 24 November, 2014
International English Language Testing System - Wikipedia ...
The International English Language Testing System, or IELTS is an international standardised test of English language proficiency for non-native English language ...

Posted on 24 November, 2014
TOEFL® Prep- and TOEFL® Preparation -- 120 TOEFL ...
TOEFL is an acronym that stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language. It measures your proficiency in the English language in an academic context.

Posted on 24 November, 2014
Institutions - International English Language Testing System
Who accepts IELTS? Detailed Search. Search by location

Posted on 23 November, 2014
IELTS | Search Results - IELTS - International English ...
IELTS is the world's leading test of English for higher education, immigration and employment. Education institutions, faculties, government agencies and professional ...

 
     
 
References
     
 
  • Bishop, S. (2004). Thinking about professional ethics. Language Assessment Quarterly 1(2&3), 109 - 122.
  • Brandt, C. (2010). Scaffolding ESL Undergraduates' Academic Acculturation through Journal Articles as Teaching Resource. International Journal of Arts and Sciences 3(17), 276 - 286.
  • Clapham, C. (1996). The development of IELTS: a study of the effect of background knowledge on reading comprehension. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Chapelle, C. A., M. K. Enright & J. M. Jamieson (2008). Building a Validity Argument for the Test of English as a Foreign Language. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Coleman, J. A. (2006). English-medium teaching in European Higher Education.Language Teaching 39(1), 1 - 14.
  • Davies, A. (2008). Assessing Academic Egnlish: Testing English proficiency 1950 - 1989 - the IELTS Solution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Extra, G., Spotti & P. Van Avermaet (Eds.) (2009). Language Testing, migration and citizenship: Cross-national perspectives on integration regimes. London and New York: Continuum.
  • Hogan-Brun, G., C. Mar-Molinero & P. Stevenson (Eds.) (2009). Discourses on language and integration: Critical perspectives on Language Testing regimes in Europe. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  • Nunan, D. (2003). The Impact of English as a Global Language on Educational Policies and Practices in the Asia-Pacific Region TESOL Quarterly 37(4), 589 - 613.
  • Slade, C. & M. Möllering (Eds.) (2010). From migrant to citizen: Testing language, testing culture. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.