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Language ladder

Global trends in language learning have led to demand for language proficiency testing at a younger age, while the more advanced-level language exam providers have been improving their products to integrate language skills testing, provide online verification of results and offer more frequent test dates. Jane Vernon Smith reports on the fast-moving language exam landscape.

Rising interest in language examinations is being seen around the globe, and despite the fluctuating individual fortunes of particular exams in different countries, most of the well-known language exams appear to be increasing their uptake. The International English Language Testing System (Ielts) exam – used for university entry purposes in the UK, Australia and New Zealand – has been making inroads in the USA, where it is now recognised by over 800 universities and colleges. Traditionally, the Toefl exam has been the main exam used by North American tertiary institutions, but this could change in the future.

Meanwhile, language schools in South Africa are also reporting growing demand for Ielts, as it becomes, according to Jane Diesel of Inlingua Language Training Centre in Cape Town, "more accepted" at universities both within South Africa and abroad. In the UK, too, word is that demand for Ielts is increasing, although, there, it appears to be at the expense of Cambridge Esol exams. According to Peter Bulmer, Principal of London-based Academy SJW, demand for Ielts has risen, "mainly because it is useful for UK university entrance, and it can be taken more frequently [than the Cambridge exams]".

Although some of the Cambridge exams available are now held more frequently, Ielts, with 48 exam dates per year, has far greater flexibility in this respect. Recent changes have made Ielts even more convenient for students. Most importantly, the rule whereby students had to wait for 90 days before re-taking a test was abolished from May. In addition, a new ‘e-downloads'; service – allowing registered organisations to download their candidates'; test results via the Ielts website – means not only that results are available quickly, but also that organisations can trust the results they receive, as Sujata Saikia of the British Council (which jointly administers the exam alongside Cambridge Esol and IDP Education Australia) points out.

According to Mark Marr, Director of Studies and Exam Officer at Concorde International Language School in Canterbury, UK, abolition of the 90-day rule has already seen an increase in the taking of the exam, "though not necessarily in student numbers on our courses," he underlines. Aware of possible negative implications, Ielts warns: "To significantly improve a score, it is necessary to engage in further study of a serious nature." However, it may take some time for candidates to heed this message. "This is going to be very frustrating for teachers who know the students aren';t ready, and [for] students who think that [taking] the next exam will actually make a difference," laments Robyn Murray, Examination Officer for University of Otago Foundation Studies in Dunedin, New Zealand.

In New Zealand, however, a general loss of popularity for Ielts has been reported, despite any changes in test-taking frequency. Murray explains that changes in the high school system have meant that if students pass their courses, they no longer need Ielts for university entry. According to Aspect';s Susan Croft, a decrease in the number of Chinese students coming to New Zealand has also negatively affected demand for Ielts in this country.

The major alternative to Ielts is Toefl, and this exam has been completely redesigned in the past year and re-launched in many countries as a computer-based test, known as Toefl ibT [Internet-based testing]. In contrast to Ielts, which offers students a choice between computer-based or paper versions in countries where the computer version is available, the new Toefl is purely computer-based.

According to Tom Ewing, Director of External Communications at ETS (which administers Toefl), the new testing system is working smoothly. Moreover, he claims, "Once the Internet-based testing network is completely built out, it will increase access for students." In terms of content, the test now provides performance feedback, so that students can target their further areas of study, and the introduction of a speaking element means that Toefl now encompasses all four main areas of language ability covered by many other language exams.

"ETS believes the new exam is… a better test of a student';s ability: it measures their ability to use English, rather than repeat what they';ve learned about it," says Ewing. Another positive, as Rebecca Russell of Aspect';s Auckland school in New Zealand highlights, is that Toefl ibT allows for immediate results on the reading, listening and writing components.

Yet, student reaction to the new test format has not been universally positive. According to Tanja Imhoff, Director of Marketing at Hawthorn-Vancouver in Canada, "There is great fear of the new [Toefl] ibT and [concern] that it is much harder." She adds, "I have heard that students have come to Canada, prepared for the Toefl exam, and then gone back to their own country to write the old paper-based Toefl."

At Boston House College in Cape Town, South Africa, however, College Director, Alan Lester, reports that interest in Toefl has increased. "Logistically," he says, "booking procedures and dates are much more flexible than Ielts." Just as Ielts has made inroads into North America, so too, according to Alexander Kratochwil of fellow South African school, Good Hope Studies, has Toefl attracted increasing numbers of Europeans over the past couple of years.

Beyond Ielts and Toefl, which are focused towards the upper end of English language proficiency, there is a range of other English language exams, offering certification from elementary to advanced level, and for both general and specialised use. Cambridge Esol runs exams that span all the levels – from Young Learners'; English (YLE) for children aged 7-to-12 and Key English Test (KET), a test of basic written and spoken communication, to the First Certificate in English (FCE) and higher level Certificate in Advanced English (CAE) and more advanced Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE). Business-oriented exams are also offered in the form of the Business English Certificates (BEC) and Business Language Training Service (Bulats).

While quick results and a good choice of exam dates are claimed to help boost the popularity of exams like Ielts, others in the Cambridge Esol portfolio are available only between three and six times per year, and results are relatively slow. However, this does not appear to have hindered growth. According to Mike Milanovic, Chief Executive of University of Cambridge Esol Examinations, demand is rising, with particular growth seen in the YLE. This, he observes, "is a result of increasing commitment among governments worldwide in the value of providing an early start in English language development."

A new qualification "providing teachers with a badge of professional knowledge, [and] helping employers to assess teacher quality and teachers to set themselves apart", the new Teaching Knowledge Test (TKT), has been well received too. Aspect';s New Zealand Sales & Marketing Manager, Sheryl Jackson, notes that, at present, most interest in the exam is coming from Japan. "However," she adds, "we are getting an increasing number of enquiries from the Middle East, Indonesia, China and Korea."

Cambridge Esol has generally taken a cautious line with regard to test computerisation. However, an online results service was introduced from April this year for some of the most popular Cambridge exams. Noting this development, plus the fact that the CAE is now offered three times a year, rather than twice, Croft observes, "These changes do not seem to have significantly changed our experience with the number or types of students enrolling for these exams. It has just led to greater student satisfaction."

Trinity College London, another examinations body, offers two general tests in English, the GESE and the ISE. Trinity examiners conduct the GESE exam face-to-face to assess speaking and listening skills, while the ISE assesses all four skills areas through additional preparation of a portfolio and a written paper-based test. Brian Cooper at the exam board relates that there is flexibility in terms of provision. "The spoken examinations can be taken on demand with just six weeks'; notice to Trinity," he says, explaining that other test elements precede the speaking and listening test. "To that extent, the tests are also on demand to suit the patterns of student recruitment in schools, colleges and the workplace."

Language exams for business are ever popular. In Hong Kong, agent Kevin Chu, Director of ISE, says that demand for Business English-related programmes has been rising in the context of a government-led workplace English campaign, which encourages Hong Kong people to take the public exams offered by Pitman, Cambridge Esol and [London Chamber of Commerce and Industry] LCCI. For Business English, other options include the ETS-run Test of English for International Communication (Toeic), while other, more specialist exams, like TKT, that cater for particular areas of work are also available, and attracting growing interest.

Ukraine-based agent, Natalia Chudnovska, Director of Osvita, highlights the Professional and Linguistic Assessment Board (Plab), an exam for international medical graduates wishing to practise medicine in the UK, as of growing interest.

Regarding the LCCI exam, International Business Development Manager, Jason Gregory, says that candidate numbers for LCCI exams have increased considerably over recent years, "particularly as we have seen a generic increase in the demand for business English over general English". Furthermore, he notes, "the recognition of LCCI [international qualifications] has increased, enabling students to use our qualifications in many different ways – in applying to university or for a job, not just in the UK, but also in their local marketplace".

Luanne McCallum, Manager of Interlink School of Languages in South Africa, endorses Gregory';s comments. "One of the biggest attractions of the LCCI is the possibility to take the exam on demand, as well as the fact of different levels, so shorter courses are possible, as students don';t have to aim for the highest level. It would be nice," she adds, "if the results were a little quicker, too!"

If results are still slower than many would like, LCCI is nevertheless moving with the times. Gregory reports that its administrator, EDI, has developed a new operating system that includes a web-based registration system. This allows overseas offices and some approved centres to enter candidate data directly onto the system, "a move that will considerably speed up the registration process and improve the accuracy levels of the candidate data," he says. Meanwhile, the English for Business exam has been enhanced by the addition of an optional listening test.

For foreign students seeking university entry in Italy, the relevant exam is the Certificazione di Italiano come Lingua Straniera (Cils), a paper-based test, established in its current form since 2000. In this period, the number of students taking the exam has been growing, according to Cils'; Laura Sprugnoli, who reports an increase of 670 students in the past year alone. "Students can use the certificate as a valuable support for job applications and for entry into education and training," she says by way of explanation.

In Spain, there is a choice of two exams suitable for university entry – the Dele and, since 1996, the DIE. While the Dele is targeted specifically at the upper range of the proficiency scale (levels B1-C2 of the European Framework CEFR - see overleaf), the DIE offers a broader range of testing from beginner level to the most advanced, with 10 oral and five written levels. Moreover, as Eduardo Villanueva Martin, of Fundación Fidescu (DIE';s administrator), highlights, candidates can choose which part(s) of the exam they wish to take. Another advantage is that its timing is flexible, and it can be taken at certain language schools, "so it is easier for students," as Maria del Mar Peñalver Gómez, Director of CIE Melkart in Cadiz, Spain, observes.

Reports from Spanish language schools, nevertheless, suggest that the Dele remains more popular. "We hold the DIE exam also, but it is still too new, and students trust more the Dele," says Gómez. Angeles Castro Sánchez of Spanish language school, K2 International, also in Cadiz, has noticed a rise in demand for the Dele – which can also be taken in Latin America. "The price for the Dele preparatory course is not expensive in general," he notes, "and it will be very useful in the future and for the CV."

For German-language exams, there is a fair degree of choice. Test DaF and DSH are university-qualifying exams, ZMP is recognised by German companies, and the Goethe exams are available at all CEFR levels from A1 to C2. According to Alexandra von Rohr of German language school, Sprachinstitut Treffpunkt, the pattern of demand is moving away from pure grammar tests in favour of exams that assess a student';s overall communicative skills. "Students need to be able to respond quickly and precisely in the foreign language," she explains, so grammar skills alone are not enough. As a result, von Rohr believes that the Test DaF will in future be more popular than the comparable DSH – being more practically-oriented towards university life and with more test dates offered to students each year.

Although competition between exams is not encouraged, it seems inevitable that it will occur, and – all else being equal – the winners are likely to be those offering the most test dates, faster results and the most modern approach to assessing language skills. "One of the disadvantages of the Cambridge exams is the long wait for results," comments Diesel in South Africa. However, she counters, "for many students this is outweighed by the knowledge that they are doing an exam that offers better preparation for university/college than Toefl – and assesses their spoken ability as well." She adds, "Toefl is now offering that option in South Africa, so it will be interesting to see if this affects any trend."

Fighting fraud

One negative development in the world of language exams has been the growing incidence of fraud – whereby students fake their results, or get another to sit an exam in their place. The growing computerisation of exam-taking has intensified concerns, and exam boards have focused increasing efforts on defending the integrity of their product.

"Ielts knows that those relying on Ielts should be able to trust the test results they receive as a valid indicator of a candidate';s proficiency in English," asserts Sujata Saikia of the exam';s joint administrator, the British Council. "We have various security measures in place to safeguard the integrity of Ielts. These include: rigorous test day security, including ID check; various in-built security features on the test report form that makes it difficult to copy; our free e-downloads service, [which] enables us to send results electronically to registered receiving organisations so that they can trust the test results they receive; and our free Test Verification Service, [which] enables registered organisations to verify Ielts results online in a quick, easy and reliable way."

At LCCI, a new certificate was produced in 2005, providing additional security features to protect against forgeries. "We also conduct random inspection visits during examination sessions to ensure the candidate identification with photographic evidence and invigilation of examinations is in accordance with our rules and regulations," reports International Business Development Manager, Jason Gregory. "Our examiners also conduct ongoing monitoring of examination scripts and refer incidences of suspected malpractice to EDI for further investigation." At Trinity College London, Brian Cooper relates, "In some countries, papers are delivered and collected by security companies on the day of the exam."

ETS Director of External Communications, Tom Ewing, is keen that the problem should be put in proportion. "Test security is ETS'; highest priority," he asserts, "and, given the scope of testing we undertake – 24 million exams in 180 countries – the numbers of test security cases are very small." Furthermore, he claims, "When test security issues arise, we are not averse to cancelling testing or scores, if appropriate, and we alert the news media and publicly announce these instances. Other testing companies are not so forthcoming when security breaches occur."

It appears that the exam boards are largely doing a good job, since concern at language school level appears to be minimal. "I';m confident that the procedures in place in the UK prevent other students taking exams or faking results," says Mark Marr at Concorde International in Canterbury. In South Africa, Martin Clegg at Eurocentres in Cape Town, South Africa, agrees: "My experience is that students see the exam results as practically impossible to fake (especially Toefl)," he says.

Establishing frames of reference

Development of a common European standard for describing levels of language proficiency has moved a step forward this year with the launch of the English Profile Project in the UK.

The Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) was established in 2001 to provide a Europe-wide set of reference descriptions at six different levels of competence, ranging from A1 (beginner level) to C2 (the highest). Already, other European language exams, such as the Spanish Dele and DIE and the German TestDaF, can be measured against the CEFR. For example, the DIE has a level that corresponds to each one within the European Framework, while the Dele focuses on a narrower band of three levels at the higher levels of achievement (B1, B2 and C2). This also means that students can clearly see where their achievements stand on an overall scale of proficiency in a particular European language.

The English Profile Project is the first step on the way to English language exams being measured in the same way. A five-way partnership between the British Council, the University of Cambridge, University of Luton, Cambridge University Press and Cambridge Esol, the English Profile Project is described as, "a ground-breaking research programme, which will use the levels of the Common European Framework to define levels of proficiency in English more precisely and comprehensively than has been achieved before". As Nick Saville, Director of Research & Validation for University of Cambridge Esol Examinations, explains, "English Profile…will lead to the creation of a kind of level-based grammar and vocabulary book for people to use."

Although this is a long-term project, it is understood that basic descriptions should be available – in both printed and electronic forms - within the next three years.

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