September 2009 issue

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Validating progress

Working and studying abroad are the two main motivators for students taking a language proficiency exam, and they certainly have a range of options to choose from: all touting their benefit, be that innovation, reputation, positioning, efficacy, cost or security features including biometric technology. Amy Baker investigates.

There are certainly global leaders in the language exam field, with Ielts, Toefl and Cambridge Esol leading the pack. But the range and scope of language learning exams is far more diverse than this, and agencies and students would do well to know of all the options available. Newcomers on the exam scene attest to their convenience, accuracy and an innate understanding of testing an academic student. Meanwhile, the big daddies of the exam pack are continually innovating to ensure they maintain their market lead.

Christine Nuttall, Director of Communications and Stakeholder Relations at Cambridge Esol, comments on developments to the ubiquitous Ielts exam, which is co-managed by Cambridge Esol, the British Council and IDP: Ielts Australia. She says that Ielts has recently announced a “small but important change” to the General Training Reading paper. “We have shifted the focus of [one section] from training related topics to the context of work,” she explains.

This means the module now covers topics such as applying for jobs, company policies, pay and conditions and workplace facilities: “This change will ensure that the module more closely meets the needs of candidates who take Ielts for employment or immigration purposes,” she states.

Employment and immigration purposes are two clear reasons for the popularity of Ielts, which offers two forms of the exam – Academic and General Training. For example, Australia requires Ielts scores as part of its visa application process for many visa categories, which has ensured a huge surge in Ielts exam applications since Australia’s visa system overhaul in 2001.

The other main reason for the popularity of the Ielts exam is its use as an academic entry requirement – higher education institutions worldwide ask for an Ielts score (among others) as proof of linguistic competency. Given the ownership of Ielts, it is no surprise that institutions in the UK and Australia have long used Ielts as the benchmark for linguistic capability of degree study. Ielts’ other main success of recent years has been in widening the recognition of the exam, across North America in particular.

Adianto Sandjaya of Smart Education in Indonesia observes, “Ielts is required by most of the overseas institutions students wish to go to.” He estimates that 70 per cent of all his clients ask for a language course that leads to a recognised exam. And Abdul Wahid Abbasi of Anis Hassan Centre of Excellence in Pakistan adds, “Out of our hundreds of clients, an estimated 65 per cent [request exam courses], which is for Ielts, given the fact that it is an internationally recognised British examination and.. Ielts fulfills student visa and immigration visa requirements too.”

Nuttall points out that Ielts’ popularity is because of its efficacy, but she acknowledges, “Other factors that have contributed to [its] success are its high levels of accessibility and acceptance. Ielts is now recognised by more than 6,000 institutions worldwide. This has helped the test to become the global leader since it was introduced back in 1989.”

Other exams are hot on its heels however. While Ielts claims over 1.2 million candidates in 2008, Tom Ewing, Corporate Spokesman for its main rival Toefl – delivered by ETS – notes that more than a million test takers registered for this exam in 2008. He highlights innovations that Toefl can offer: “Toefl recently announced a significant reduction in the reporting time of its scores and Toefl iBT [internet-based testing] scores are now available online in two weeks for most test takers,” he says. He also divulges a new innovation, the “e-rater”, which will enhance scoring efficacy.

“From July, Toefl will use automated scoring to complement human ratings on one of the two writing tasks on the test,” he says. “E-rater, the state-of-the-art scoring engine from ETS, will be used in combination with human ratings. [It] combines the judgment of humans for content and meaning and the consistency of automated scoring for linguistic features.”

Another interesting development at Toefl – which Ewing claims is the most widely recognised exam globally, accepted by over 7,000 institutions, agencies and bodies – is enabling institutions, or “score users” as decreed by a test taker, to listen to an excerpt of a candidate’s speaking performance in the test. Ewing says, “Starting with the June 24 test administration, score users chosen by test takers to receive their scores can listen online to one of a candidate’s four integrated speaking responses.” He explains that the responses are evidence of summarising, evaluating, comparing and sythesising information. “No other test has integrated questions like them,” he reports, adding, “We also want universities to have a sense of what our test takers are required to do in providing evidence of English proficiency.”

This will undoubtedly stir up interest in the higher education market, with one often-cited concern or problem being that international students with the necessary English qualifications still do not always prosper once they are pursuing their degree abroad. This has led to the flourishing academic pathway programmes sector and also to other exam providers trying to promise greater efficacy in terms of ensuring a candidate’s appropriate positioning.

In Japan, the Step Eiken test is delivered as part of the formal education system in the country, and, as Michael Todd Fouts, International Operations Manager, points out, it is widely recognised within Japan. It was pioneered to suit the Japanese student, rather than being a truly international test, and Step Eiken is now positioning itself to be a globally recognised exam for English proficiency. Fouts says, “After 46 years as a domestic exam, Eiken is slowly but surely becoming an international standard”, noting that it is now recognised by 350 institutions worldwide as well as all state schools and Tafes in New South Wales in Australia. Fouts adds, “The Korean government announced recently that their new national test would be based on the Eiken model.”

For Japanese students, the advantages of considering Step Eiken over other tests boils down to “easy accessibility, low cost and familarity”, he says. He explains that although fewer test dates are offered than Toefl or Ielts, “the advantage is that every examinee who applies is guaranteed a seat – Eiken test sites do not ‘sell out’ as often happens with other leading exams.”

Another company keen to carve a niche for itself in the academic market is Pearson Language Tests (PLT), a division of Pearson Plc. Its Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic) is a new computer-based test that has been extensively trialled, launching in October. Over 6,000 students undertook the first pilot of the test and at the time, the company announced that it believed the test would be the most effective academic-oriented test available (see LTM, May 2008, page 10). Now, the exam has been field-tested by 10,400 test takers.

Mark Anderson, President of PLT, ventures, “As the worldwide leader in educational assessment, technology and publishing, Pearson combined its expertise to create a premier test that will allow our education partners to be confident that the students they admit have the language skills that are requisite for success in an environment where English is the primary language of instruction.”

Emma Stubbs at the company details why PLT believes the exam will impress institutions: automated writing and speech scoring using “proven state-of-the-art technologies for reliable and standardised scoring with no subjective scoring”; innovative and integrated questions, using real-life academic material from a variety of contexts and topics. She adds that results will normally be available in five business days, “for minimal delay in admissions applications”, while, from the point of view of test takers, they can schedule their test online at any time, rather than attending fixed examination sessions. This certainly is a new development within the exam field.

Another fairly new exam in the academic sector is Password, which is delivered by English Language Testing Ltd., a subsidiary company of the UK’s University of the Arts. Exam dates are flexible as made available by their network of accredited test centres and Password offers instant results for test takers.

The brainchild of Caroline Browne, ex-Director of Brunel International in the UK, the exam was developed because Browne felt that there was a need in the market for an exam which effectively discriminated between those who would do well in a higher education arena overseas and those whose language skills were not quite adequate.

Alan Baldock, Head of Password Partnerships, explains that Browne felt that many other tests were aimed at higher levels of ability, and not appropriately discerning among the proficiency bands that would be identified by Ielts as between 3.0 and 6.0. “We developed the test in conjunction with the Centre for Research in English Language Learning and Assessment (Crella) at the University of Bedfordshire, a world class specialist,” he explains,

Unlike other tests, the hour-long exam focuses on grammar and vocabulary only, with an add-on writing module if required. Baldock states, “We believe very strongly that you cannot build on language skills without vocabulary and grammar,” explaining that the company believes it is better to comprehensively test basic elements of language skill than attempt to assess all areas at this level.

He adds that other tests can lead to very stressful conditions for students who likey have little experience of native English speaking. “Password is not easy but it does offer less stressful conditions,” he says. Exams are either delivered in test centres or can be purchased by institutions and administered at their discretion: enabling them to offer one-hour exams at education fairs, for example, with an instant result.

Baldock also mentions price as an appeal; “it is typically half the price of Ielts to a student”, he says, “and more accessible in busy periods”. In the nine months since Password launched, 50,000 tests have been sold, with 30 institutions buying the test directly and 70 test centres established globally since the company started back in 2007.

With academic access being one clear focus of exam bodies, the other trend is to design exams with success in an overseas workplace in mind. At Trinity College London, the newest exam available is the Spoken English for Work (SEW) exam, which, says Rebecca Rufener at the exam board, is also offered on request. “Graded Examinations in Spoken English (Gese) and SEW are offered on demand, as is the oral and speaking component of Integrated Skills in English (ISE), with a Trinity examiner travelling from the UK to examine the candidate,” she reveals.

Trinity exams seem to be a very personal approach as compared with computer-based testing which typifies many other exams – although the speaking component of the Ielts exam is also assessed in person by an examiner. Rufener says, “Trinity offers ‘can do’ exams which test oral communication in a one-to-one setting with an experienced examiner.” She elaborates, “SEW candidates have an actual telephone conversation with the examiner as well as the opportunity to talk about their own area of work.”

Exam evolution has tended towards the development of online testing, however, and Toefl exam delivery is now 95 per cent computer-based, with paper-based testing only available in countries where Internet access is not possible. When the Toefl iBT first launched in 2005, access problems were reported. However, says Ewing, “the initial issue of demand for the test exceeding capacity has been solved. ETS now has more than 4,000 Internet-based testing centres in 1,562 cities”.

Similar access problems have occurred for the paper-based Ielts exam, but Nuttall says this is something that the company is responding to. “Our test centres have the infrastructure, resources and security systems to deliver far greater number of tests per sitting than most other international English tests,” she ventures. With the exam delivered four times a month in more than 130 countries, “many of our test centres in China can test more than 1,000 candidates at a time”.

Cambridge Esol’s popular suite of exams (taken by over 2.5 million people in 2008 in 130 countries) are paper-based and computer-based, depending on preference. Nuttall details that there have been developments here to the delivery and availability of the exams: “We recently announced a number of additional exam dates for 2010 which were mostly for computer-based versions of exams,” she says. “We’re not looking to replace paper-based versions but it does allow us to offer greater choice to those who are increasingly more comfortable working with a keyboard than paper and pen.” New test locations were also established last year in Russia, with 25 test centres now in the country.

Cambridge Esol’s FCE, CAE and CPE are probably the best known of this exam suite, but Nuttall signals that their professional English exams (of which there are five, including Bulats) are also highly regarded, “helping to improve skills for the business sector”.

At EDI, the awarding body for LCCI International Qualifications, the most popular exam from its suite of seven – which includes JetSet Esol, Spoken English for Industry and Commerce (Sefic) and English Language Skills Assessment (Elsa) – is English for Business (EFB), according to Kevin Blanch at the organisation. Last year, approximately 29,000 students sat this exam.

He points out that EFB scores are also accepted for admission into university, as are JetSet Esol, Sefic and Elsa. All scores are aligned with the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), as most others are – helping students and institutions find a benchmark of skill level across the panoply of examinations and qualifications available. Cambridge Esol’s latest website development is the “ePortfolio”, whereby students can use this service to log their linguistic achievements according to CEFR.

Many exam boards are optimistic about their innovated products and the continuing demand for officially validated proof of linguistic proficiency. Those that can really deliver what test takers and test users (employers and institutions) want and need will certainly prosper. As Nuttall observes, “Despite the challenging economic climate, all of our tests remain popular. This is perhaps due to the fact that in times of economic recession, people often turn to education to improve their prospects.” And Ewing adds, “English is now the global language of business and education and its growing popularity will be reflected in Toefl volumes.”

Non-English exams

While English language exams are clearly the mainstay of the examination market, with multiple exam brands claiming over a million candidates, there is a robust demand for other language exams, including Mandarin, German and Spanish.

The Dele examination in Spain is the one used most widely for entry into a university and according to José Luis Marugán Santos at Instituto Cervantes, which delivers the exam in collaboration with the University of Salamanca, last year saw 44,000 students taking the exam. “In Spain, [Dele results] allow access to universities, language schools, business schools and jobs in public administraton,” explains Marugan Santos, adding, “They are valid indefinitely.”

He says that Dele is the only Spanish exam of its type that is officially recognised by the Ministry of Education, Social Policy and Sports, and like many other exams, it seems like Dele is being continually reevaluated and overhauled. “We are studying and analysing how they [exam providers] could make the [non-oral] exam available online,” he relates. Italians and Greeks represent some of the nationalities most likely to enrol for the Dele exam currently.

In Germany, TestDaf has become the standard test used for university entry. Last year, close to 17,000 students sat the test, according to Carina Berger at the company. Chinese and Russian students are the most typical nationality profiles, although tests can be taken “all over the world”.

Berger details advantages of considering the test, such as its universal recognition throughout Germany, wide availability and the fact that preparation from home is possible. Since the exam launched in 2001, uptake has expanded by an average of 9.7 per cent each year, and for 2009, 18,000 candidates are expected. The content and tasks of TestDaF are all related to academic, scientific and study-relevant topics.

The Chinese Proficiency Test, HSK, is sometimes called the Chinese Toefl, with its advanced exam offering access into university for a degree programme. Recognised within China and available as a basic, elementry, advanced or new beginners “threshold” level, the latest available figures indicate that over a million candidates sat the HSK test four years ago in 2005.

Beating the cheats

Every so often, there has been a revelation of cheating among language exam takers, with one common problem a few years ago being professional test takers sitting an English language exam on behalf of another candidate.

All exam boards acknowledge that exam security is a prime concern. Alan Baldock at Password attests that impersonation is the biggest fradulent issue that the company deals with. All companies now insist on photo ID and on close analysis between ID presented and the candidate in question, with strict training for invigilators and constant supervision.

Tom Ewing at ETS, which delivers Toefl, points out that unlike other companies, ETS publishes details of test fraud if exposed, cancels those scores and notifies score users. At Trinity College London, Rebecca Rufener points to the small panel of non-resident examiners as helping to ensure no “partiality or enticements”.

At Pearson, security is being taken to another level. Emma Stubbs relates, “Pearson will use state-of-the-art biometrics to ensure the security of the testing process for PTE Academic. Test takers are asked to provide a digital signature and have their photograph taken, after which their palm vein pattern is captured and verified using PalmSecure biometric technology.”

She adds that a “personal introduction” will need to be supplied – “this response may be an additional biometric voice print to allow institutions to compare an applicant’s voice with the voice recorded while taking the test”.

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