August 2010 issue

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Multiple choice

Demand for language proficiency exams is holding firm in the face of economic hardship, as proof of language skills becomes more important. Jane Vernon Smith explores some of the many options in this sector of the language travel market.

While the global economic crisis has certainly taken its toll on the language travel industry, the market for language proficiency exams has actually benefited from the downturn, according to some agents.

“We are experiencing that, just because of the economic crisis, language courses [leading] to an exam are increasingly popular, because they give a strong added value to the student,” comments Paolo Barilari of Italian agency, Lingue nel Mondo in Rome. “The job market in Italy is much more difficult and competitive now,” he explains, “and to have an official certificate might be a good help in finding a job.” In debt-stricken Greece, Panos Nikoloutsopoulos concurs, highlighting the fact that many Greek students view language qualifications as an investment, and will sacrifice other family needs to obtain them.

Meanwhile, at Study Global, an agency chain with offices in France, Germany and Spain, spokesperson Ramona Biehn offers data supporting these impressions. Demand for language proficiency exams has soared this year, compared with 2008 and 2009, she asserts. Having accounted for 2.2 per cent of overall bookings in 2008, the trend for the first four months of 2010 is suggesting a rise to 5.6 per cent for the current year – more than a doubling of numbers. She believes that the economic crisis “can certainly be seen as a factor” in this increase.

As might be expected, not all agents are so positive. Petr Reznicek of Horizonty in the Czech Republic reports that the recession has had a generally negative influence on any kind of foreign travel, as well as study programmes for examinations. His comment is echoed by Prinn Sukriket, Managing Director of Ajarn Prinn Company in Thailand – an agency that specialises in exam programmes – and Paola Moreno, Academic Director of Easy Go International Students Agency in Colombia. However, according to Prinn, demand nevertheless remains high.

A look at numbers taking some of the more widely available exams can provide an idea of the size of the overall market. With 5.2 million Toeic tests, more than three million Cambridge Esol exams, around 2.3 million Test Eiken (a Japanese test of English language proficiency) and 1.4 million Ielts tests administered in 2009 – as well as many others, both in English and other languages – the exam market is undoubtedly a substantial one. It is also one with a sometimes bewildering range of options catering for different student requirements.

Test developments
As agent comments testify (see box page 34), changes to the format or availability of exams can have a significant impact on their popularity. Hence exam boards are constantly adapting and innovating in order to maintain a leading edge. Relevance and quality of their assessment, accessibility of testing, test security and speed of results are all key areas in which competition occurs, in addition to the battle for acceptance by higher education institutes and immigration agencies.

Exam provider, Pearson, is hoping to shake up the university entry testing sector of the market, where Toefl, Ielts and Cambridge Advanced English (CAE) currently compete, with the addition last October of Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic) to its existing PTE General and PTE Young Learners exams.

The new exam was launched in response to feedback from institutions, and responds to “their need for a secure…test that would more accurately measure the communication skills of international students in an academic environment,” explains Pearson’s Emma Stubbs. A further major selling point is its quick turnaround of results; currently just three days.

To date, more than 1,200 academic programmes accept or are in the process of accepting its scores, and it has become the preferred English language test of GMAC, owners of the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), Stubbs reveals. While it has some way to go before it rivals Toefl – which is now accepted by 7,300 universities – PTE Academic has made an impressive start.

Meanwhile, Toefl has achieved progress of its own. Eileen Tyson, Director of Global Client Relations at owner ETS, notes “record growth and increased interest” in universities using Toefl for admissions, with a rise of 383 in 2009 alone, including many in continental Europe and Asia. According to Tyson, Toefl is making inroads into the traditional Ielts markets, as “universities there tell us they like the score verification system, and find it easy to use”.

At the same time, “More and more organisations are recognising Ielts,” claims Christine Nuttall, Director of Communications and Stakeholder Relations at joint owner Cambridge Esol, “and the test is currently accepted by over 6,000 universities, employers, governments and professional bodies around the world.”

With migration criteria changing rapidly, agents also need to keep abreast of which exams are recognised by which immigration authorities. Ielts is used for both student and professional immigration, including in the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the USA. Similarly, Tyson highlights that Toefl is currently accepted for migration purposes for Level 1 and 2 countries in Australia, and ETS is now working towards acceptance for Level 3 and 4 countries. Meanwhile, following the publication of the requirement for Tier 4 of the UK Points Based System for student visas, Tyson notes, “Toefl has applied for accreditation at that level, as have all the other major testing organisations.”

Test formats
When it comes to accessibility of testing, it is not surprising that larger operators offer more choice of test location. Toefl, with Internet and paper versions available in different markets, is currently on offer in 180 countries, according to Tyson, while the Toeic tests are available in more than 90 countries at more than 9,000 organisations worldwide, according to Director of Strategic Marketing, Maria Krocker. Against this, the paper-based Trinity College London exams were taken last year in 63 countries worldwide, and the Italian CILS exams may be taken outside Italy at Italian Institutes of Culture, as well as at other approved centres.

One of the benefits of computer testing is that it helps to increase accessibility. However, while Toefl in particular has made a significant commitment to this exam format, other boards have remained largely faithful to the traditional face-to-face and paper-based exams. At Trinity College London, Head of International Marketing, Thomas Jones, explains why very few elements of computer testing have so far been undertaken. “In many ways, our strength lies in precisely the fact that we don’t offer this... We do the, literally, ‘old school’ method of a trained examiner going out from the UK to do face-to-face unscripted interviews – this is unique and,” he asserts, “unassailable in the quality it ensures.”

Cambridge Esol has for some time been offering candidates a choice of format. “The number of centres that offer computer-based versions of our tests has recently passed 300 – in 49 countries – and continues to grow,” notes Nuttall. The first computer-based FCE exams took place in Ireland in May, and the company has also recently linked up with Kaplan and Navitas to offer computer-based tests in their schools. However, she underlines, “We’re not trying to replace pen and paper testing; we’re simply offering more choice to candidates, and this is being well received in the market.”

Test security
Exam fraud is an issue that has gained in prominence over recent years, and, in view of the way that exam results can affect life-changing decisions, as Nuttall highlights, exam boards now take this issue extremely seriously. “To help overcome these security challenges, we’ve recently launched an online verification system, where recognising institutions – such as an immigration body – can verify a certificate quickly and easily,” she explains.

ETS is also “committed to maintaining the highest level of test security”, according to spokesperson, Feng Yu, who explains that, throughout the life-cycle of a test, all Toiec test materials are carefully protected. This is an area in which Pearson, too, believes it has a leading edge, and, hopes that its “sophisticated biometric technology and other methods for ensuring security and integrity in testing” will help it to become a leader in the field, Stubbs comments.

Trinity has also tightened up on test security. Nevertheless, as a small exam board with an emphasis on the personal touch, it places its faith in traditional methods. “You can have all the computer-based gizmos…you want, but our examiner is actually in the room with each candidate, and checks their [identity] personally – you can’t hack your way past that!” comments Jones.

The future of testing
The past 12 months has seen a glut of further changes and improvements to existing products and ancillary services. For Toefl, the most significant development, according to Tyson, has been the improved turnaround time for reporting scores, with results now available within two weeks, instead of three. Another recent improvement for score users was the launch last autumn of a new, free online service that allows university admissions officials to hear a candidate’s scored iBT speech sample. In addition, ETS has launched a new service to help prepare candidates for the reading test, and has introduced Toefl scholarships in Korea, China and India.

Rival, Ielts, has updated its General Training exam, to improve the way the reading paper meets the needs of those using the test for employment or immigration purposes, according to Nuttall. The company has also recently launched online practice tests and courses to supplement its Top Tips for Ielts revision book.

Cambridge Esol itself has also made some content changes, with a revision to its Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE) test in January this year, and a new practical module for its Teaching Knowledge Test (TKT). Another development is a version of the First Certificate in English (FCE) for school-age students.

Japanese provider, Step Eiken, is less well-known in the western world; yet, costing just a quarter of the Toefl test, according to spokesman Michael Todd Fouts, it is, as its candidate numbers reveal, (see page 31) also a significant player in the market for academic tests of English. Outside Japan, Eiken is offered publicly in London, Los Angeles and New York, as well as privately in 46 countries. A new, improved company website, launched in March 2010, has provided schools with “a powerful – and free – marketing tool in Japan”, according to Fouts, which should help the test gain in recognition.

Step is also engaged in a large-scale study comparing Eiken against the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages), and has recently completed a second round of standard-setting workshops. The results, says Fouts, are helpful to test users for comparing Eiken levels with international criteria. As well as administering its own test, in April 2010 Step began handling Ielts testing in Japan in partnership with Cambridge Esol and in cooperation with the British Council.

In the field of testing for the workplace, Toeic is at the forefront, being used, according to Krocker, by 9,000 organisations in 90 countries across the world to assess employee language skills. During the past year, owner ETS has expanded the availability of its speaking and writing tests with the aim of bringing them in line with that of the listening and reading test, which was already available around the world. This, comments Krocker, has proved beneficial to multinational organisations, which use the scores in recruitment, promotion and training decisions. Meanwhile, Trinity College London has recently started recording all of its exams as standard.

It is not only English language tests that have been active in enhancing their offer over the past year. In Italy, the Certificazione di Italiano come Lingua Straniera (CILS), has introduced two levels of qualification (A1 and A2 of the CEFR) to supplement its existing exam for foreign students seeking entry to Italian universities. These new qualifications are designed for children aged between eight and 11 years, reports spokesperson, Laura Sprugnoli.

As the foregoing makes plain, it is without doubt a competitive market place. However, Nuttall firmly believes that choice is a good thing. “From a candidate point of view, it increases their chances of finding the right solution,” she observes, adding, “From a test provider’s point of view, more choice means an increased need for us to find new solutions that closely meet candidate needs.”

Exam choice

For advisors, as for candidates, the sheer number of English language exams available, can prove difficult to negotiate. Most will be familiar with some leading products, but there are many to choose from, all serving different needs. We list below a selection of those available, and how their providers position them in the market.

Provider: Cambridge ESOL

For companies and individuals who need a rapid, accurate means of assessing language skills for recruitment, training, benchmarking and staff development.

Cambridge English: Advanced (CAE)
A high-level language qualification (set at level C1 of the CEFR) that is officially recognised by universities, employers and governments around the world.

First Certificate in English (FCE)
For people who can use everyday written and spoken English at an upper-intermediate level. Particularly suitable for people who want to use English for work or study purposes.

Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE)
Cambridge Esol’s most advanced exam, aimed at people who use English for professional or study purposes.

Teaching Knowledge Test (TKT)
Designed to give teachers a strong foundation in the core areas of teaching knowledge needed in the English language teaching classroom.

Provider: Cambridge Esol in association with the British Council and IDP:Ielts Australia

Ielts Academic
A test of academic English for those who want to enter higher education in an English-speaking country. Tests all four skills and covers nine levels of ability.

Ielts General Training
Specifically designed for those wishing to migrate to an English-speaking country to train or study in English at below degree level. Tests all four skills.

Provider: Educational Testing Service

An assessment of English language skills for use in academic settings, suitable for proof of English skills for university entry and migration.

An assessment of English language proficiency for the workplace, which tests the candidate’s ability to communicate in English as part of their workplace responsibilities.

Provider: Pearson Language Tests

Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic)
A test of academic English capability, suitable for proof of English ability for university entry or visa application.

Pearson Test of English General (PTE General)
Suitable for use by teenagers, as a follow-on from PTE Young Learners.

Pearson Test of English Young Learners (PTE Young Learners)
Suitable for use by children in primary school.

Provider: Step Eiken

Eiken Test in Practical English Proficiency
Assesses all four skills and includes a face-to-face speaking component. Backed by the Japanese education ministry and recognised by institutions both in Japan and internationally.

Provider: Trinity College London

Graded Exam of Spoken English (GESE)
Test of spoken English based purely on a spoken interview. Suitable for use in schools.

Integrated Skills in English (ISE)
Test of reading, writing, speaking and listening, but with 50 per cent of the overall marks awarded for the spoken interview. Suitable for use by universities.

Spoken English for Work (SEW)
Similar to GESE, but the initial part of the exam takes place over the phone, followed by a face-to-face interview with an examiner. Suitable for use in the workplace.

Asian recruitment trends

Many countries in Asia are keen to maximise their international recruitment of students, but how are most of the involved institutions going about putting themselves on the map? The answer is predominantly via agencies, together with direct marketing efforts.

“We recruit mainly through participation in education fairs and partnerships with local recruitment agents and education consultants,” reports Dylan Ong, Marketing Officer for the International Marketing & Recruitment Team at Swinburne University of Technology (Sarawak Campus) in Malaysia. The university offers a range of foundation, diploma, degree, Masters and PhD programmes as well as supplementary and intensive English courses.

Ong explains, “Following initial correspondence by email, we will follow up with a visit to the operating premises [of agencies]. Generally, we work well with agents in every country we visit, but our most established partnerships are in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.”

Ong’s experience is similar to many providers throughout Asia. Vernon Sim at SSTC School for Further Education in Singapore relates, “We engage recruitment agents who meet our criteria and will abide by our code of conduct. Through these agents, we participate in exhibitions, roadshows and conduct seminars.” Meanwhile, Stuart McCutcheon Barrett at Q Language in Hong Kong details, “We have agencies in several countries and use virtual agent referral sites. Plus, we have direct applications via our website. Also ‘word of mouth’ [is important], as some of the applicants already have friends or family studying/working in Hong Kong so they take the opportunity to join them.“

In Singapore, however, there is one difficulty that agencies working with institutions in the country are now facing. Graham Sage, Director of Inlingua Singapore, explains, “New regulations in Singapore are making it more difficult for educational agents overseas to recruit for private educational institutions here, as the government no longer allows the agent to collect course fees from the potential student to pay to the institution. The student must now pay the course fees directly to the school.”

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