Analysis of English language tests currently available


Blog for members
28 May 2020
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Lizzie Corsini, English Language Assessor at The University of Law, analyses the English language tests currently available.

 

Navigating the balance between compliance and being competitive is difficult at the best of times but with the bombardment of information during COVID-19, deciding which, if any, English language tests are appropriate to accept can feel overwhelming.

It is always important to consider how the addition of any new English test or qualification may impact on your Tier 4 licence but the basic question should be: Is this an adequate test of Academic English? To gloss ‘adequate’, this covers test security, question types, whether it tests what it claims to test and whether it is fit for purpose.

Often a quick glance at the marketing for an English language test for use in these uncertain times means "Does it test Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing?." However, asking How it tests them is a better approach. Watch out for test length: if a test is too short, there often isn’t any reading/listening or writing at length, a key skill at university. Also, listening to a question does not mean listening comprehension has been tested.
Granted that no test is without its limitations but in order to rationalise the adequacy of any EL test, I have listed the tests that have been most commonly proposed as alternative during test centre closures. My top tip is to be considered and rationalise it rather than reacting and adding all and sundry.

Apart from assessing the four skills (and How), I would think about if a test has been designed for online remote delivery already (LanguageCert, Duolingo) or has been adapted for the COVID situation (Password, Pearson Versant). This does not make one better than the other per se, but if the home-delivery version of a test has been rushed/not trialled properly, the test security may be compromised or perhaps the test being appropriated for COVID was not originally designed for such high-stakes testing. Also, is it a test you already accept with a different delivery mode (TOEFL, IELTS, LanguageCert) or a new test you are adding (TOEFL ITP, Pearson Versant, Duolingo). Furthermore, how are your English language support provisions for once students start? Could these mitigate some of these risks? These are all factors that need weighing up for each test and will vary for each institution.

If the expiry date is two years, will you accept an online-home test once test centres are open or expect them to take the test centre version? Policy should be clear on stating how long they are acceptable for. A student that takes IELTS Indicator or TOEFL iBT Home Edition should be able to use them next year rather than pay for the same test in a different delivery mode (unless evidence is presented that compromises the security of the test, of course).

Depending on your institution’s history of audits and how risk averse an institution is to adding new tests means that considering IELTS and TOEFL IBT makes most sense as these tests are (generally) on everyone’s list already. Granted the delivery mode has changed but the security is as robust as it can be without it being face-to-face. The LanguageCert test centre version now has SELT status and the same applies: it is the same test with a different delivery mode but is available in China, so between these three options, you have global coverage and only had to concede on the delivery mode, an unavoidable choice during lockdown.

My institution have chosen not to add new tests outside of these. I would not feel happy justifying the choice to accept Duolingo during a HEAT audit as it does not assess all four skills and even with that aside, in its current version, it is not a robust assessment of Academic English and therefore not fit for purpose for HE study in its current version.

I am also less inclined to consider tests if:

  • they have been quickly adapted for the purpose
  • there are no (free) practice materials
  • the test demands too much resource on the university’s side.

As a result, Pearson Versant and Password will not be accepted for one/some of these reason. This is not to discredit these tests or the developers but on balance, accepting three tests, all of which are the same as the test centre one we already accept, that cover every country between them, is both as risk-averse as we can be whilst maintaining an assurance that the quality the test has not been compromised in order to provide a quick fix during the COVID crisis.


IELTS Indicator

Pros:

  • Reputation of IELTS as a SELT (test centre version)
  • Clearly assesses all four skills with a variety of question types, length of audio/texts
  • Cheaper than the test centres version ($149)
  • The test centre code will be different so you can track the students

​​Cons:

  • Not available in mainland China

Watch out for:

  • Only available whilst test centres are closed

 

TOEFL iBT Home Edition

Pros:

  • It is the same as the test centre version, only the delivery mode is different
  • Assesses all four skills
  • Test centre code tells you Home Edition and country it was taken in

Cons:

  • Not available in mainland China or Iran
  • The cost is the same (varies depending on country but normally between $160-$225)

Watch out for:

  • Only available whilst test centres are closed

 

TOEFL IPT Plus

Pros:

  • Available in mainland China (only)
    Test costs $70 (institution conduct their own speaking assessment) and $140 (with interview)

Cons:

  • The speaking assessment is unassessed. Whilst the video is available for viewing, an assessment of each video by an English language expert would be required for an audit trail.
  • Only has multiple-choice questions

Watch out for:

  • This is an alternative for Chinese applicants but this is not the same test as TOEFL iBT
  • It is a paper-based test so can run at test centres but unclear how it will be fully available during lockdown.

 

LanguageCert ESOL Online

Pros:

  • A good range of question types and tasks, R/L/W at length and Speaking is with a live interlocutor (marked by an assessor later)
  • Online proctoring uses AI and a live proctor.
  • Test centre version has SELT status, the online test is the same test
  • Already designed for home delivery
  • Available in mainland China

Cons:

  • Costs approx. £200 if applicant go direct (However, if you become a partner for £900 per year, you get 20 free tests and can resell tokens at wholesale price £110-£120, or absorb the cost yourself and charge nothing to the student)
  • The process of becoming a partner takes a little time- you can’t receive training on the system until you’ve paid the £900 fee.

Watch out for:

  • There is a B2 and a C1 paper and there a two pass marks. Home Office advised requiring a High Pass on the B2 for UG study.

 

Password Skills Solo Test

Pros:

  • Cost for Password test is £40 per student (for papers and marking combined)
  • Good range of question types and assesses all four skills

Cons:

  • Institutions purchase the test and arrange remote proctoring themselves. (Password partner with ProcturU, or a member of staff can live invigilate one or more candidates (eg via Zoom on a second laptop) 3 hours 5 minutes per test.)
  • This test must be proctored for high stakes testing, without it is for low stakes use (this is from CEO of Password)

Watch out for:

  • This is a different test to the Password Knowledge Test. There are only a few versions of the Reading/Listening paper
  • To use ProcturU directly: min order is 500 for one year across any exam @$50 p/exam) min order would be $25,000

 

Duolingo

Pros:

  • Already designed for online home delivery
  • Cheapest option at $49 per test
  • Available in mainland China

Cons:

  • Not a test of academic English
  • Does not assess all four skills
  • No comprehension questions (eg listening question is ‘repeat this sentence’), no reading, listening or writing at length

Watch out for:

  • There is an optional writing/speaking part at the end which is unassessed but available for the institution to view. I believe Duolingo intend on assessing this part in the future.

Pearson Versant

Pros:

  • Reputable developer of tests (unable to trial it and see the question types as you seem to have to pay for a trial)

Cons:

  • Not available in mainland China
  • University has to administer the tests themselves
  • It wasn’t designed for this purpose, it was more for placement tests. Their products list a placement test and the English test- one is 50 minutes long and more for the purpose of placing students in the correct level of class (in a language course)
  • The intention was for recruitment purposes (in a workplace), I’m unclear if they have rebranded their placement test so they can make it easily available during COVID-19

Watch out for:

Applicants have to pay for practice tests (around $33 per practice test)

 


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