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High Stakes Threaten the Security of English Language Tests



Editor’s note: This article is the fourth in our series on English language testing.

The British Home Office recently took away the rights of several universities to sponsor foreign students.

In February 2014, the universities gave English language tests to students wanting to study in the UK. Students must pass the test to receive a visa.

But BBC reporters found that the universities were not following the rules. Sometimes, people giving the tests read the answers out loud. Other times, they let someone else take a test for the student.

James Brokenshire is the UK Minister for Immigration and Security. Mr. Brokenshire said ETS Global, a European subsidiary of the Educational Testing Service, systematically cheated. In June 2014, the Home Office threw out the test scores of over 50,000 students who participated in the fraud.

High-stakes tests

This recent event in the UK shows how important high-stakes English tests can be. High-stakes tests include the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), the IELTS (International English Language Testing System), Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic), the TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) and the Cambridge English exam.

Students take these tests to gain entrance to a university, apply for immigration, or qualify for a job. They are called high-stakes tests because their results have an important outcome for the test-taker.

They are so important that both test-takers and testing companies are sometimes willing to cheat.

Responses to cheating on tests

Clive Roberts is a director at ELS Educational Services. Mr. Roberts says all the major test companies have had problems recently with test security.

“There’s a lot of theft, piracy of content. Many companies have even migrated away from what one thought of, initially, as a safe area, computer-adaptive tests, because even with computer-adaptive tests there has been piracy of content.”

So, Mr. Roberts says, companies are taking new measures to make sure the person who takes the test is the person who receives the scores.

For instance, earlier in 2014, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) introduced Voice Biometric Recognition. The software checks the test takers’ voices before and during the exam to verify their identities. This voice recognition technology is one way of making sure the person who receives the score is the same as the person taking the test.

Clive Roberts of ELS says other companies have considered using palm or fingerprint recognition – in other words, using test takers’ hands to verify their identities. But, Mr. Roberts says, many countries want to use fingerprinting only for criminal activities.

For now, one of the best security solutions might not use any technology at all.

“So, a lot of people are talking about simply resorting to the constant creation of new tests, which is also, of course, extremely expensive.”

Low-stakes tests

But not all English tests have to be high-stakes – or expensive. Test development companies are working to create low-cost or no-cost tests that can be delivered online. Such tests are called low-stakes tests because they do not provide an official rating. Instead, they give students a general idea of their level and how prepared they are for the next step in their education.

The unofficial scores from these low-stakes tests can be used to place students in a school language program. Or they can guide students and teachers in future instruction. Since the stakes are lower, everyone is less likely to cheat.

I’m Jonathan Evans.

Dr. Jill Robbins reported and wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.

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Words in This Story

subsidiaryn. owned or controlled by another company

stakes ​– n. something (such as money) that you could win or lose in a game, contest, etc.

high-stakes test ​– n. a test used to make important decisions about students, teachers, or schools

low-stakes testn. a test to measure academic achievement, identify learning problems, or inform instructional adjustments, among other purposes

piracyn. the act of illegally copying someone's product or invention without permission

proficiencyn. advancement in knowledge or skill; mastery

recognitionn. computers : the ability of a computer to understand and process human speech or writing


Now it’s your turn. What do you think about cheating on tests? How do you recommend the testing companies handle this problem?

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