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September 2004 issue

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Exam security

With stories about exam fraud appearing regularly in newspapers, major test providers have had to invest in security to ensure confidence in their English language testing services. Amy Baker reports.

In the past few years, there have been many stories about exam fraud in the language teaching world, as students keen to enter a university overseas have resorted to faking their English language proficiency in order to gain a place.

In today's era of heightened national security, language exam results are gaining wider use than just for university entrance. For example, since 2001, the Australian government has decided to include Ielts scores as a criteria in its revamped student visa programme. This means that the issue of fake exam results may also raise concerns about the integrity of a country's visa system.

The Australian Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (Dimia) acknowledged last year that forged qualifications were hampering the visa issuance process. Abul Rizvi, Spokesperson for Dimia, said problems were noted in China, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, parts of eastern Europe and South America, and estimated that forgeries accounted for one to two per cent of visa applications.

But it is not only Australia that is concerned over the faking of exam results, with all the major English-speaking language travel destinations keen to curb the practice. In New Zealand, Immigration Minister, Lianne Dalziel, highlighted the issue of fake Ielts certificates last year in a speech that she made at an immigration fraud conference.

Stories highlighting test fraud include students tampering with their passports, using a doctored photo, so that someone else can sit an Ielts or Toefl exam for them (see Language Travel Magazine, August 2003, page 5). And in the USA, Educational Testing Service (ETS), the company that delivers the Toefl test, uncovered a scam of proficient students taking the test for novices and then doctoring the official certificate when it arrived.

As stories about forgeries have hit the headlines around the world, the exam bodies involved with the two most popular English language proficiency exams, Toefl and Ielts, have sought to ensure confidence in their systems by introducing additional security features. As Sujata Saikia of the British Council, which jointly operates the Ielts exam system with IDP Education Australia and University of Cambridge Esol exams, points out, 'There is a price to pay for success. An Ielts Test Report Form (TRF) is now a highly valued commodity.'

In the case of Ielts, the Internet and photo technology are being used as a means of avoiding fraud. Since summer 2003, a TRF Verification Service has been available online to any organisation that officially recognises the Ielts certificate. Eligible organisations access a website that lists Ielts results for all candidates who have sat the exam since January 2003. And since October last year, test-takers also have their photo on the website.

Saikia sums up, 'As the high-stakes nature of the test escalates, so do the security concerns. We have invested heavily in enhancing the security features of the TRF and the Ielts software systems. The [TRF Verification] service allows recognising organisations to validate test results in a quick, easy and secure manner.' Saikia adds that Ielts collaborates closely with many of its stakeholders in fighting exam fraud. 'All test centre staff undergo rigorous training in impostor identification and fraudulent ID detection. There are strict ID requirements and checks during test registration and on the test day.'

At ETS, Ray Nicosia, Director of Test Security, similarly explains that with a staff of 25 people, his department monitors scores from all 25,000 test centres (for all ETS exams) and pays great attention to possible fraudulent behaviour.

Photo technology is also used on Toefl score reports so that a photo of the test-taker appears on each result. 'Schools feel this is a good deterrent [to cheats] and if someone turns up and doesn't speak much English, staff can double-check their score report,' says Nicosia. Other security features include video surveillance. Nicosia explains that in a room adjacent to the test, invigilators are able to zoom in on a student's hand, for example, and challenge a test-taker if fraud is suspected.

He adds that he can audit a centre if there are queries or doubts about results, such as many high scores in a short space of time. 'I close around four to six centres each year,' he reports, explaining that this course of action is followed in cases where it is felt staff may be inefficient or taking bribes.

'We have a responsibility to the more than 99 per cent of test-takers who sit for our exams and do not try to obtain an unfair advantage,' he says.

Ielts and Toefl uncovered

The Toefl test is more widely taken than the Ielts test, although industry pundits predict that this might cease to be the case in the future (pages 24-29). ETS claims that each year, nearly 800,000 individuals worldwide register for the exam. Meanwhile, Ielts test-takers were estimated to have reached 500,000 in 2003.

At present, the Toefl test measures English language proficiency in reading, listening and writing, and is offered on computer in most regions of the world. An additional Test of Spoken English (TSE) can also be taken separately. In areas where access to computer-based testing is limited, a pen-and-paper version of the test is administered. A new version of Toefl is scheduled to be launched in September 2005, when speaking skills will also be graded for the first time.

According to ETS, 'the new test assesses skills through 'integrated' tasks that require the use of more than one skill at a time'. Mari A Pearlman, Senior Vice President of Higher Education at ETS, says, 'ETS is committed to more than just testing. We are supporting English language learning by providing score descriptors and diagnostic feedback to help learners and their English teachers identify areas for improvement.'

The Ielts test already covers all four language skills: listening, reading, writing and speaking and is offered in a pen-and-paper format at designated test centres around the world. There are two types of Ielts test: academic and general training. All candidates take the same listening and speaking modules, and choose to take the other modules in either format.

The company explains on its website, '[The] academic [version] is suitable for candidates planning to undertake higher education study. The general training [exam] is suitable for candidates planning to undertake non-academic training or work experience, or for immigration purposes.'

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