February 2012 issue

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English language testing

With institutions and immigration departments recognising more proficiency exams, the market in English testing is stronger than ever. Jane Vernon Smith looks at how providers are innovating to meet this increasing demand.

The whole landscape around [the] English language testing sector is changing,” according to Cambridge Esol’s Pamela Baxter. “Increasingly, tests like Ielts are being used in life-changing decisions.” As colleague, Christine Nuttall, elaborates, “People are increasingly relying on their results to get them in to university [or] work, or to support an immigration application.”

Hence, “English language exams are definitely becoming more high-stake in nature,” she claims. This is the case not only for the students taking the tests, but also for the exam boards themselves, when the extent to which their scores are accepted by immigration authorities, universities and employers can have a major impact on uptake.
The market for proficiency exams is a substantial one. To illustrate the point, nearly 3.5 million people took a Cambridge English exam in 2011, according to Nuttall, including the more than 1.6 million who took Ielts – the exam jointly managed by Cambridge.

Meeting demand
It is therefore important for boards to meet the changing needs of these bodies, as well as of candidates, and it is this that has been driving exam boards to constantly review their provision and, where possible, to improve it. At Cambridge Esol, “We’ve worked on a number of key projects to ensure our tests remain fit for purpose,” Nuttall reports. “This has included the introduction of new security measures, such as test-day photos. We’ve also significantly increased the number of dates that are available to take our exams, and reduced the turnaround time for results.”

At Pearson, spokesperson Fran Bayley says, “We recently increased testing sessions worldwide, making thousands of test sessions available across key markets, such as the UK, China, India, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Pakistan...In addition, we launched an on-demand test request service for institutions and international advisors, to help satisfy local demand for the test.”

New Ielts centres are also being opened. “Recently, we have signed memorandums of understanding to open the first test centres in Iraq, Oman and Bulgaria,” reports Pamela Baxter, Ielts spokesperson at Cambridge Esol, who adds that in Iraq, in particular, students will soon be able to use their scores to apply for Kurdistan’s Human Capacity Development Programme, helping thousands of students from Iraq to study abroad.

Paper or PC?
Meanwhile, with Pearson having set a new benchmark for speed of results, claiming a typical turnaround within five business days, Toefl has recently speeded up its own results service, in response to student feedback, and is now able to provide them with their electronic scores within 10 business days, according to Rebecca Powell, Manager of External Relations at owner, Educational Testing Service (ETS).

Computerised testing, on which such speedy results rely, is increasing in the exams market. However, not all believe this is the right way forward for their own products. At Anglia Examinations, Chief Examiner, Liz Bangs-Jones, explains that Anglia’s exams are paper-based for several reasons, first of which is that the board is not convinced that computer marking can give each script the attention it deserves, especially for the productive skills. “Students are not standard. They are human. Tests need to be, too.”

Trinity College London also remains committed to its tried-and-tested format. Indeed, according to Head of Business Development, Thomas Jones, the board’s unique methodology, whereby one examiner, sent from the UK, interviews each candidate face-to-face and one-on-one, has been a key factor in its growth over the past ten years. Hence the only change that has been made is that exams are now recorded. “The bedrock of our qualification is the proof that candidates can (or cannot) speak and hold conversation/present/negotiate/resolve a problem using relevant English, is seen increasingly key for employers and universities alike,” Jones observes. “Computers can correct writing and translate reading, but being able to speak real English is now vital and makes us at the cutting edge of the market.”

City & Guilds is another board that has not yet embraced computerised testing. However, notes Artur Rego, the company’s Business Development Manager, during 2011 it acquired Learning Assistant, “one of the biggest online assessment platforms on the UK market”, which has the capacity to provide infrastructure for online testing. At the same time, City & Guilds has sought to improve learners’ exam experiences by making it more “student-friendly” – in both content and purpose – than has been made available in the market previously, according to Rego, who emphasises the exams’ practical focus.

ETS, meanwhile, has made changes to the reading section of its Toefl iBT test, making it shorter, as well as making the whole of it available to students in a single block of time, “to allow [them] more flexibility in using time management and testing strategies that work best for them”.

Online resources
Another way in which exam boards are enhancing their service is through increased provision of online resources. Powell notes that Toefl has developed numerous resources that are available free of charge on its website. City & Guilds recently launched a new support website and is also planning to introduce an online exam-preparation course to help students working towards Iesol. Cambridge Esol has launched online speaking practice for its Cambridge English: First exam – which it intends to extend to other exams this year.

This attention to market needs has helped a number of exam boards to increase their recognition over the past year. According to Powell, Toefl is currently recognised by more than 8,000 institutions worldwide. Ielts, meanwhile, “is gaining popularity for less traditional destination markets, where we’re seeing more university courses being taught in English,” notes Baxter. Meanwhile, Nuttall confirms “huge growth” in recognition of Cambridge English exams, which – including Ielts – she says are now accepted by more than 12,500 organisations around the world.

PTE Academic, which was launched by Pearson in 2009, has also thrived, and is now accepted by over 90 per cent of universities in the UK, Bayley reveals. City & Guilds has also achieved an increase in recognition for its Iesol and Isesol exams, both by universities and governments, Rego observes. For example, the City & Guilds Iesol exam is recognised by the UK Border Agency.

In terms of the immigration landscape, Australia recently recognised Toefl iBT, PTE Academic and Cambridge Certificate in Advanced English (CAE) as well as Ielts for student visas (see STM, July 2011, page 6).
Perhaps a knock-on effect of the increasingly high-stake nature of language proficiency exams is that, as Powell observes, “Students around the world are beginning to learn English at earlier ages.” While the market for adult exams of various types is a crowded one, the junior market has, until recently, been relatively uncluttered.

Anglia Examinations has long been catering for this sector, providing exams at four different levels specifically for juniors. Pearson is also an established player here, with its PTE Young Learners. However, in the past year, there have been two high-profile new entries. Toefl has launched the Toefl Junior test, an assessment of middle school-level English language proficiency, which, as Powell reports, measures listening and reading ability, as well as knowledge of language form and meaning. The second new contender is Cambridge English: First for Schools, which follows exactly the same format as Cambridge English: First, says Nuttall, “except we’ve tailored the content so it’s targeted at the interests of school-aged learners of English”.

English for Japanese learners

In Japan, the Eiken tests for Japanese learners of English from The Society for Testing English Proficiency (Step) are going from strength to strength. Spokesman Todd Fouts reports that, despite the country’s shrinking population, the number of Eiken examinees has been increasing, particularly at the advanced levels, with the number of test registrations in the 2010 academic year having risen by approximately 35,000 over 2009, to almost 2.3 million.

The trend looks set to continue. During the past year, he notes, “Several influential US public universities have recognised Eiken as an English-proficiency qualification for international admissions.” Meanwhile, Step is collaborating with one of Japan’s leading private universities to produce a standardised English proficiency test for use as an entrance exam at Japanese universities. The test, known as TEAP (the Test of English for Academic Purposes) is currently being piloted, and is scheduled for full release later this year. According to Fouts, the new test is ground-breaking in the context of Japanese entrance exams, in that it will offer transparent specifications and will be equated across all forms, so that test scores can be compared across years.

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