bright
bright
bright
bright
bright
tl
 
tr
lunder

Language Testing for Higher Education

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

Return to Scenario Selection

runder
lcunder
rcunder

 
     
 

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.


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

The world's your stage
27 July, 2015
For interested students, do take note the British government has imposed a new visa law that requires all non-EU students to submit only IELTS results as proof of English proficiency. As for other academic requirements, Guildhall will only ask for ...

Language Magazine » Blog Archive Half of EU Doctors Rejected from UK for Poor ... - Language Magazine
27 July, 2015

Language Magazine

Language Magazine » Blog Archive Half of EU Doctors Rejected from UK for Poor ...
Language Magazine
The IELTS is widely considered to be more challenging than other popular English proficiency exams, such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the Test of English ...


Half of EU Doctors Rejected from UK for Poor English
27 July, 2015
The IELTS is widely considered to be more challenging than other popular English proficiency exams, such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC). The recent language requirement ...

ICD approved as first local TOEFL test taker - Daily Times - Daily Times
26 July, 2015

ICD approved as first local TOEFL test taker - Daily Times
Daily Times
LAHORE: Education Testing Service (ETS) of the United States has approved Pakistan's Institute of Career Development (ICD) as country's authorized examination center for TOEFL exam. ICD, a private institute, has been given the a...


Getting Fluent - MIT Technology Review
26 July, 2015

MIT Technology Review

Getting Fluent
MIT Technology Review
... earns money by selling $20 certificates attesting to student performance on a 20-minute English test, the results of which it says correlate with those of more established, and expensive, options including the Test of English as a Foreig...


How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking?
26 July, 2015
After all, I was the expert on what I was saying-the only one in the room. This post was written by Lucas Fink, test prep expert at Magoosh. Magoosh offers online test prep to make the GRE, GMAT, SAT, ACT and TOEFL easier, affordable, and fun!

How have the new SELT rules at sub-degree level impacted the UK sector? - The PIE News
24 July, 2015

How have the new SELT rules at sub-degree level impacted the UK sector?
The PIE News
The SELT shake-up has been a topic of conversation this summer, with sudden changes meaning IELTS is now the only approved global provider of Secure English Language Tests for students seeking to obtain a visa to e...


TOEFL, IELTS, or TOEIC? Comparing the Tests - VOA Learning English
22 July, 2015

VOA Learning English

TOEFL, IELTS, or TOEIC? Comparing the Tests
VOA Learning English
They are the Test of English as a Foreign Language, TOEFL, the Test of English for International Communication, TOEIC, and the International English Language Testing System, IELTS. In most cases, the choice is clea...


Communication is important
22 July, 2015
You are certainly eligible to pursue an MA/MSc/MS in International Business in any university. You need to only write the IELTS exam to go to UK. If you want to study MBA, you need to take the GMAT exam and have two to three years of work experience.

IELTS - Superior English - Australia Forum
22 July, 2015

IELTS - Superior English
Australia Forum
My current IELTS score is S7.5 R9 L9 W7.5 for which I spend one day for preparation though some sample papers and videos. What I would like to know is if a formal instructor or tutor would beneficial for my cause as unlike reading and listening scores ...



TOEFL test scores can demonstrate English proficiency for registration - Australian Journal of Pharmacy (registration) (blog)
16 July, 2015

Australian Journal of Pharmacy (registration) (blog)

TOEFL test scores can demonstrate English proficiency for registration
Australian Journal of Pharmacy (registration) (blog)
From 1 July 2015, regulated health practitioners in Australia will be able to use their TOEFL test scores to demonstrate En...


Chinese national pleads guilty in Pennsylvania to test-taking scam
16 July, 2015
Between 2011 and 2015, mainly in western Pennsylvania, the defendants paid imposters to take the SAT, the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the GRE under false names, according to federal prosecutors. Both the test-takers and the people ...

College offering English language test - Estevan Mercury
15 July, 2015

College offering English language test
Estevan Mercury
The Southeast College is partnering with Saskatchewan Polytechnic to bring the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) to the college's Estevan campus later this year. The college announced on Thursday that the exam will be offere...


College offering English language test
14 July, 2015
The Southeast College is partnering with Saskatchewan Polytechnic to bring the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) to the college?s Estevan campus later this year. The college announced on Thursday that the exam will be offered locally ...

Apply for TOEFL scholarship worth Rs. 44 lakh - Hindustan Times
14 July, 2015

Hindustan Times

Apply for TOEFL scholarship worth Rs. 44 lakh
Hindustan Times
The scholarships will support TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) test takers willing to pursue undergraduate or graduate study in India or abroad at any of the 9,000 plus institutes across the globe that accept ...


IELTS tests now at UAE University - gulfnews.com
14 July, 2015

IELTS tests now at UAE University
gulfnews.com
An agreement was recently signed between the university and the British Council for the accreditation of the university's Centre for Continuing Education to hold the tests. IELTS (International English Language Testing System) is now accepted by more ....


IELTS tests now at UAE University
13 July, 2015
Dubai: UAE University now has an approved centre for the IELTS English language proficiency test on its Abu Dhabi and Al Ain campuses. Students from other institutions can also sit for the test at the campuses. An agreement was recently signed between the ...


Links to Websites

27 July, 2015
IELTS International English language test system | Take IELTS
Take IELTS English test with British Council. IELTS ? The worlds leading English test of listening, reading, writing and speaking. Book your IELTS test NOW!

27 July, 2015
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 ...

27 July, 2015
International English Language Testing System - Official Site
Find an IELTS test centre, understand the test format and try sample test questions.

27 July, 2015
IELTS is the world's most popular test for higher ...
IELTS (International English Language Testing System). More than 2 million people each year take IELTS to prove their English ability for international work, study ...

27 July, 2015
Test of English as a Foreign Language - Official Site
Information about the TOEFL tests and services are available online. Try the TOEFL practice questions.

26 July, 2015
The TOEFL® Test
Want to study abroad? Need a visa for an English-speaking country? The TOEFL English-language test can get you there. Visit TOEFLGoAnywhere.org for more info.

 
     
 
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.