Since 1964, colleges and universities in the United States have used the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL, to measure an international applicant’s level of English. Universities in English-speaking European countries began using the International English Language Testing System, or IELTS, in 1989.
These two tests have been the main choices for English ability testing in higher education admissions for international students, until now.
In recent years, several companies have developed new English language tests that are low-cost and easy to use. And they aim to do more than just offer greater choice in the admissions process.
Duolingo creates software that teaches users many different languages, including English. In 2014, the company launched its own test of English language ability.
Jennifer Dewar works with Duolingo, helping to develop the test. She formerly worked as an admissions official at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. The school is one of hundreds of colleges, universities and other organizations in and outside the U.S. that now accept the test results for international admissions into their study programs.
Dewar says Duolingo created the test to lower the barriers to higher education for people worldwide, especially those in developing countries.
The TOEFL and the IELTS cost between about $180 and $240 to take. They are given in a limited number of centers around the world. Some test-takers have to travel to take the tests, adding to the costs.
Duolingo offers its test entirely over the internet for $49. All test-takers need is access to a computer with a microphone, listening device and self-facing camera.
“I don’t think we’re in a position, at this point, to continue to support those barriers and not … make education more accessible for people all over the world,” Dewar told VOA.
Differences among the tests
The TOEFL, IELTS and Duolingo measure a person’s English reading, listening, speaking and writing abilities. But it takes about 45 minutes to complete a Duolingo test, as compared to three or four hours for the TOEFL or IELTS.
Dewar says it is possible because Duolingo uses artificial intelligence to adapt to test-takers’ abilities, using fewer questions to measure their skills.
David Payne is a vice president for Educational Testing Service, the nonprofit organization that operates the TOEFL test.
He agrees that improving access to higher education is important. But he says general English knowledge is not the only thing college and university study programs require. Schools need to know how successful a student will be using the level of academic English that their professors will expect of them.
In 2015, researchers at Temple University in Philadelphia and Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University found the Duolingo test to be a weak measurement of that.
Payne said: “We would argue that delivering a high quality test to the academic market provides the value that is necessary to make a really important decision. And saving $100 to $150 on a test doesn’t seem worth it, in terms of the relative expense of the test versus what you’re going to pay for tuition and fees, and room and board."
In addition, he notes that test security has become an especially important issue. In the last three years, there have been several cases in which people were caught lying about their identities in order to take English ability tests for others.
Payne argues that there is still no technology that can better prove a test-taker’s identity than having them take the test in person.
John Segota is with the TESOL International Association, the world’s largest professional organization for teachers of English as a second language. He says schools will have to do their own research to decide if any newer test options can perform as well as traditional ones.
“It really comes down to a question for the … universities … about what’s available, what’s the quality of the services and products that are available, and are they satisfied with what’s in the marketplace,” Segota noted.
Segota added only time will tell if a given test is worse at measuring a student’s likelihood for success. But in general, having choices is important.
Choice is exactly what made Duolingo and other non-traditional English tests appealing to Emerson College in Boston. The school accepts both TOEFL and IELTS results for its English language requirements. Emerson also accepts the Cambridge English Assessment, the Pearson Test of English Academic, and, as of 2017, Duolingo.
Michael Lynch is Emerson’s director of undergraduate admissions. He said, “We are interested in expanding our international presence … We do see ourselves as a global institution. … And … it really comes down to access for students, and options.”
Other test measurement
Many experienced language learners may see higher education as their ultimate goal. But there are millions of people who are in the early or middle stages of English proficiency who need to measure their progress, says Dana Alhadeedi.
She is the academic director for the EF SET, an English language ability test created by the language instruction company EF Education First.
Education First started the free internet-based EF SET test in 2014. The adaptive test takes 50 minutes and only measures a test-takers English reading and listening abilities. The purpose of this test is to give all learners a general idea of their current English ability level.
“Because our test … can get English proficiencies for a large number of people at any given time, and because of the accessibility of the test, we’ve found that it actually caters to a lot of need out there,” said Alhadeedi.
Companies, organizations and even governments have used the EF SET for their own purposes, she notes. This includes VOA Learning English, which has a partnership with EF to use the test on its website.
I’m Pete Musto. And I’m Caty Weaver.
Pete Musto reported this story for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor. We want to hear from you. How well do you think these other tests will measure English learners’ abilities? Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.
Words in This Story
applicant – n. someone who formally asks for something, such as a job or admission to a college
access – n. a way of being able to use or get something
microphone – n. a device into which people speak or sing in order to record their voices or to make them sound louder
adapt – v. to change your behavior so that it is easier to live in a particular place or situation
academic – adj. of or relating to schools and education
expense – n. the amount of money that is needed to pay for or buy something
versus – prep. used to show the two people or teams that are fighting or competing against each other or that are opposed to each other in a legal case
tuition – n. money that is paid to a school for the right to study there
room and board – n. a place to stay with meals provided and included in the price
undergraduate – adj. describing a student at a college or university who has not yet earned a degree
global – adj. involving the entire world
institution – n. an established organization
option(s) – n. the opportunity or ability to choose something or to choose between two or more things
proficiency – n. a high degree of competence or skill
cater(s) to – n. to provide what is wanted or needed by someone or something