English Proficiency tests in the times of COVID-19

About the Author

Anuradha has over 15 years of experience in the field of education. She started her career as a teacher and went on to become a test-prep trainer and content developer. She specializes in training students for IELTS, TOEFL, GRE, and GMAT and conducting the train-the-trainer programs. She has extensive experience in managing test-prep projects and in client relationship management.

As many “What if we can’t” questions are getting answered during the times when the world as we know it is changing, let us have a look at how the situation is shaping up for English language proficiency tests that are an essential part of the admission process for millions of international students.

Just a few weeks back, life as normal for an aspiring international student was all about building a profile, preparing, and booking slots for English proficiency and aptitude tests. With COVID-19, changes are afoot. Deadlines for applying to universities are drawing close, and qualifying tests that applicants need to take are not available for the time being, as such students are looking at online tests that will help them apply in time, and among the key considerations is the question of which English Language proficiency test should be in the reckoning for entry. Of course, home testing is the new mantra.

The choices available for English language tests that can be taken from home presently include:

  • TOEFL IBT Special Home Edition test by ETS announced in March 2020.
  • IELTS Indicator by Cambridge Assessment English in partnership with British Council and IDP announced in April 2020.
  • Duolingo English Test by Duolingo, which started as a home testing service in June 2012

Some Key Features Of The Tests

A Comparative Study 

On many counts, Duolingo is different from the other two tests. The first major difference is that Duolingo is an adaptive test i.e. it adapts to the test taker’s level. IELTS and TOEFL, on the other hand, are not adaptive tests.

Listening questions in IELTS and TOEFL have dialogues and monologues that are based on real-life scenarios and require the test-takers to understand stated and inferred meaning. When it comes to Duolingo, it produces a list of words from which the test taker has to choose actual English words. Reading questions are also very different in the Duolingo test. While IELTS and TOEFL check test taker’s comprehension of passages for both stated and inferred information, Duolingo has brief paragraphs where the test taker has to fill blanks with words that are appropriate in terms of grammar and vocabulary. Reading and Listening questions, in IELTS and TOEFL, relate to real-life scenarios, while questions in Duolingo test are withdrawn from them.

As writing tasks in IELTS and TOEFL have essay and graph interpretation, students can bring out their writing skills in areas that they have to be adept at while studying at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Duolingo writing questions, however, require students to write brief paragraphs in response to a cue provided.

Speaking interview in IELTS and TOEFL are relatively longer than Duolingo. Though all the three tests check the speaking skills of the test-takers in similar areas, unlike IELTS and TOEFL, Duolingo shares responses of students in writing and speaking sections with the recipient university. This gives an opportunity to the international admission team at the universities to come to know more about the applicants.

Duolingo’s score reporting pattern is also very different from that of IELTS and TOEFL. Whereas the latter pair report individual scores (in Listening, Reading, Writing, and Speaking test) as well as a consolidated score, Duolingo only gives a consolidated score. This places the Duolingo test at a disadvantage as some universities look for scores in specific skills based on the course that the student has applied for.

Further, IELTS and TOEFL tests are divided into sections that provide a sense of uniformity to the pattern of questions being asked. This is not true for Duolingo. The question types keep shuffling from one format and skill to the other, making it relatively more challenging for the test taker to adapt to.

Finally, the advantage that IELTS and TOEFL have over Duolingo is that they are long established in the testing market whereas, Duolingo is yet to open doors at the majority of the universities. One fact that acts in favour of Duolingo as compared to the other two tests is the fee, which is comparatively economical and the short duration within which it is able to deliver the result.

Though IELTS and TOEFL have introduced the option of taking the test at home temporarily, in the post-COVID period, by when the home testing feature would have gained popularity, it would be interesting to see if this option would still be provided to the students as an alternative or if they would revert to test centre formats? It will also be interesting to wait and watch the influence that these times may bear on the format of these tests.

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