English language learners’ represents a significant subpopulation of USA students which in the 2006/07 school year were more than 5 million in the PK to 12 grades (Esquinca, Yaden, & Rueda, 2008). This is projected to represent 1 in 9 students in the country with 80% of them nationally being native Spanish speakers and overall about 400 different home languages.
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English language Proficiency tests whether commercial or institutional are used to assess proficiency of limited English proficient (LEP) students.
In every state in the country, states, education agencies and schools have an obligation to identify LEP students especially those who come from homes where another language other than English is spoken. These tests are meant to assess the student’s oral proficiency in English also writing and reading skills (The California State University, 2009).
In some states, there are already laid out procedures for identifying students who might become LEP students. There are set of questions designed to find out non-English speakers under Home Language Survey program. If discovered that a student is from non-English background, an English proficiency test is issued. In other states, specific English language proficiency tests are used.
In other countries such as USA, Australia and UK and others where English is the language of communication, English language proficiency test is a requirement for international students wanting to pursue education in these countries at any level.
It is a requirement also in other for immigration, skilled worker programs, and professional titles (Solorzano, 2008). For these students, commercial tests such as TOEFL and IELTS are recommended.
International English Language Testing System (IELTS)
IELTS was established 21 years ago and was one of the pioneer tests in English language skills. The test is co-owned by the University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations, the British Council, and the IDP: Australia with more than 800 testing centers and locations in 130 countries around the world (Alderson, Krahnke, & Stansfield, 2008).
IELTS assesses English language proficiency in four skills; listening, reading, writing and speaking. These tests are continually improved to encompass advances in applied linguistics, technology, language assessment and language pedagogy (The California State University, 2009).
Test formats and results
The IELTS tests are available in over 800 centers and locations in 130 countries of the world, and are accessible internationally. Every year the tests are held on fixed dates and are set in the same conditions across the world. It consists of four parts, which reflect the skills in the English language. These are reading, writing, speaking and listening.
These are oriented to test candidates in their mastery of English in real life-situations. They are also offered in two formats, the academic format for university and tertiary candidates and general training. They are also used by English medium universities, colleges and professional groups and immigration agencies such as in Canada to test the immigrants English language ability (TESL Canada Federation, 2011).
IELTS test on listening contains four sections of recorded assessment for candidates. This increase in complexity as they progress and contain a mixture of dialogue and conversation. This test contains seven different task categories which include tables, matching, forms, multiple choice, classification and notes.
This tests the ability of a candidate to listen and understand contents in English in real-life situations. This section takes about 40 minutes where the first 30 minutes a candidate listens to recorded material and in the last 10 answers the given questions as outlined by Ekbatani, (2010).
In reading skills assessment, candidates are presented with three passages, which are derived from authentic books, magazines or even journals, which they are supposed to read and complete ten different tasks. These include multiple choice, short answer, sentence completion and labeling diagrams among others.
In writing skills, candidates are required to complete two tasks, which are a one hundred and fifty word report, based on presentations in a table or diagram. This tests the ability of the candidate to describe and explain issues as they seem. The other task is a 250 word essay which could be in response to an opinion or problem outlined in the test.
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The final skill tested is speaking which is done for ten to fifteen minutes. Here, the candidate and the examiner interact on a face-to-face basis and the former is expected to describe, narrate and give explanations on personal and general issue topics that are asked. These tests have an overall test time of two hours and forty five minutes.
The listening and reading tests contain 40 items and each correct answer is given one mark with the maximum a candidate can achieve being 40 points. These points are known as raw points and are then put in band scores, which range from 1 to 9, 1 meant to mean no language skills and 9 meaning an expert user of the language.
In writing and speaking skills test, detailed performance descriptors are used with each being rated in the 9 IELTS bands. After the marking, and scoring, candidates receive test report forms showing overall test band score and the scores in the subtests. Each of the subtest scores carries the same weight and the final score is obtained by calculating the mean score of the four subtests. These results are valid for two years (Hogan, 2005).
Tests are marked thoroughly and consistently and results scored on a 9 band system. This is a unique scale that does not give a pass or fail instead it puts the overall scores in a band system where each band means specific English language competency. These are then reported in the nearest whole or half bands, which are discussed by TESL Canada Federation, (2011)
Band 0 means that the candidate did not provide any information while band 1 means the candidate is a non user of the language and has no ability to use it behold a few isolated words. A candidate with 1-3 marks falls into this category.
Band 2 is referred to an irregular user who does not have the capacity to communicate in English apart from the essential information where limited words are used in familiar instances and needy situations. This candidate experiences hardships in the use and understanding of the English.
Band 3 refers to a candidate who is a very limited user of English. He/she expresses and understands basic meaning in familiar situations and communication breakdown arises.
Band 4 refer to a limited user of the language and portrays basic competence only in familiar environments. Problems in understanding and articulating issues arise, and complex language use is not possible.
Band 5 represents a candidate who is a modest user of English language. This one has limited use of the language where overall meaning is understood although he/she might make a mistake. Communication in familiar field is possible though.
Band 6 candidate uses English proficiently and has a valuable grasp, however, there is a likelihood of, inappropriacies, misunderstandings and inaccuracies. In common situations, the candidate can fairly understand complex language.
A band 7candidate uses English excellently, since the operational command of the same is demonstrated, however, occasional misunderstandings and inappropriacies are observed. This candidate can cope with intricate language and detailed reasoning.
A band 8 candidate uses English very excellently, since he/she demonstrates unwavering command of the language, however, inappropriacies and unsystematic inaccuracies come about intermittently. This candidate handles intricate in depth reasoning well. This is given to a candidate who has a raw score of 35-39 marks.
Band 9 is an expert user of the language where he/she has fully equipped command. He understands the language completely in an appropriate and accurate manner. Has a raw score of 40-41 marks.
Scoring rubric reliability and validity
The IELTS modules are rated by certified and trained examiners according to Hogan, (2005). They use a set of descriptors made from each key criteria of each module as Hogan continues to say. For example, speaking sub test where the major criteria are ease, consistency, grammatical range and accuracy, lexical resource and pronunciation (Hogan, 2005).
These band descriptors that actually are used are confidential, but IELTS have provided a public version of them which are available on their website. These are mainly for the purpose of helping stakeholders know what candidates can do also for candidates to know the level of performance expected from each band score and in each criterion.
IELTS examiners have also been put through intensive training and standardization in face-to-face situations so that they can be well positioned to apply the descriptors in a valid and reliable manner (Solorzano, 2008).
Also, the production of question papers follows several stages that ensure that the results are reliable and indiscriminative. First, appropriate test content is outlined that reflects the goals of academic and general training modules.
The next stage involves trailing the material with a representative group with an aim of determining whether there is a challenge indistinguishing between the more and the less able students. Finally, the questions are introduced to live tests in the standard fixing stage to ensure it aligns with the IELTS metric (TESL Canada Federation, 2011).
IELTS scores are valid for two years, and if for more than that, a valid proof should accompany the scores to show that the candidate has maintained or tried to advance their English. This is because the test shows a person’s language skill at a given time. A person’s ability to communicate in English may diminish in time especially if the language is not in use (Hogan, 2005).
Test of English as a Foreign Language-Internet-based Test (TOEFL IBT)
According to Hogan, (2005), the TOEFL IBT is an examination that weighs up nonnative English speakers capacity to understand and exploit spoken and written English in environments such as, schools, colleges, as well as universities.
According to Hogan, (2005), the test allows institutions to gauge the student’s capacity to communicate in English in academic situations and how ready they are to undertake academic work as it assesses integrated skills.
TOEFL IBT was developed and is used by ETS a nonprofit organization that is involved in the advancement of quality education to all around the world. These tests are based on rigorous research and innovation with more than 5 million in 180 countries and 9,000 locations worldwide people taking them every year.
Education Testing Services (ETS) was established in 1947 by the American Council of Education, the Collage Examination Board and Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
These organizations gave their testing programs, assets and manpower to establish an educational research and assessment institution that will see advancement of knowledge. This has grown to extend their services to learners worldwide. Besides TOEFL, the organization also offers assessments in TOEL tests, GRE and the Praxis Series (Education Transparency Services, 2009).
TOEFL IBT is a version of the English language test that is offered over the internet for assessment in English skills for academic environments. Its core emphasis is integrated communications and communicative competence. TOEFL IBT exams are taken in the institutes’ Prometric centers as well as in university and educational centers that use internet based programs.
USA was the first to adopt the technology in 2005, followed by Canada, France, Germany and Italy. The use of the internet has enabled the organization to make the test more accessible to many users as well as widening the measure of the English proficiency globally (TESL Canada Federation, 2011).
The test does not consist of separate tasks testing different skills as is the case with IELTS but an integrated assessment that tests the four skills; reading, listening, reading and writing at once. The tests involve three approaches as outlined by Buckendahl, Blackhust, & Rodeck, (2006);
- In the first approach, a candidate is supposed to read, listen, and then speak as he/she answers the questions asked,
- Secondly, a candidate listens and then talk to respond to a question posed,
- The final approach is where a candidate reads, listens, and then writes down responses to questions.
The reading part of the TOEFL IBT consists of 3-5 passages, which are drawn from academic sources and 12-14 questions, based on each passage. The listening skills are tested using 2-3 discussions with two speakers with each having 5 questions lasting 3 minutes.
The speaking sub test contain 6 tasks with 2 of them requiring candidates to talk about general topics, two involving listening to a spoken lecture and responding to queries on this while a further two involves reading a brief academic text, listening to the spoken information about this text and then responding to the questions on the two materials.
Writing generally involves two tasks. One requiring a candidate to read a short academic text listens to a recorded lecture that is related to the text and answer questions that incorporate the two materials. The last task involves writing an essay about a topic of interest. The whole test takes about 41/2 hours (TESL Canada Federation, 2011).
Scoring the test
The TEOFL IBT is marked out of 30 points for each section, and the total score is out of 120 points. The reading and listening skills are rating that are computer based. In speaking skills, which is done by ETS raters, each task is marked out of four points, and the overall score is put on a scale of 0-30.
The writing skills also are marked out of five points for each task and then put on a 0-30 scaled score. The difference between this test and the IELTS is that separate sections do not carry the same weight as they are considered to assess different language abilities (Esquinca, Yaden, & Rueda, 2008).
Performance interpretation, reliability and validity
Performance scores for each section are interpreted differently. For reading performance description ranges from low, medium and high. In speaking ability, performance is rated as weak, limited, fair and good while writing is described as limited, fair or good (The California State University, 2009).
This test does not use face-to-face interviews in the speaking section but rather have the candidates record their responses in English. This is said by (Ekbatani, 2010) to eliminate a lot of bias that might be found in face-to-face interviews that are determined by the rapport the examiner and candidate created during the meeting.
The recordings together with the other test materials are assessed by between three to six raters instead of relying on a single rater’s impressions. This is said to be fairer for the candidates and more accurate for academic institutions in gauging their students’ skills.
TOEFL IBT test has a more improved writing section to the original TOEFL paper based in that another writing task was introduced. The candidate is anticipated to read a small passage, pay attention to a lecture by listening and then put in writing the responses on the computer (Ekbatani, 2010).
This whole test takes four hours and is completed the same day which is convenient for a candidate. Buckendahl, Blackhust, & Rodeck, (2006) say that the use of other integrated tasks independently will help instructors to link better teaching, learning and testing in academic environments.
Comparison of IETLS and TOEFL-IBT scores and scoring procedures
TOEFL IBT speaking and writing modules are graded holistically where the score that is given is an overall assessment of the whole essay in terms of vocabulary, logic, style, and grammar. In IELTS, on the other hand, scoring is done using a checklist where each item in the list is graded individually.
The checklist includes grammar, word choice, fluency, cohesion and logic among others. TOEFL IBT generally requires a person with an ability to compose a logical and detailed argument which exhibits clarity, excellent word choice and style. IETLS requires excellence in grammar and vocabulary and generally a candidate who can write a decent essay (Education Transparency Services, 2009).
In TOEFL IBT speaking module, scoring procedures are more complex where the responses are spoken into a microphone, then recorded digitally and ETS is used for scoring. Through ETS Online Scoring Network (OSN), four to six different human raters score the responses.
This ensures objectivity and reliability. In IETLS, speaking module test is conducted by an interviewer in the country where the candidate is taking the test, who then scores the response (Hogan, 2005).
In the writing module, TOEFL IBT candidates type and then send responses digitally to ETS for assessment. Writing responses are scored the same way the speaking responses are scored. They are rated by four to six raters through ETS OSN for reliability and objectivity purposes. In IELTS, responses are handwritten by the candidate and then forwarded to in-country human raters at the test center for scoring (Ekbatani, 2010).
In terms of quality control of the rating procedures, TOEFL IBT, raters are subjected to a calibration test, which they must pass, every time they rate. The scoring sessions are also monitored by scoring leaders to ensure highest quality control. In IETLS, examiners go through a retraining and recertification process every two years to ensure reliability (Alderson, Krahnke, & Stansfield, 2008).
English proficiency is a requirement not only in schools in countries like United States of America but also for immigration, skilled worker programs, and professional titles in English speaking countries. English proficiency tests are used to assess the communication skills of a candidate.
IELTS and TOEFL IBT are among the most common tests since they are accepted by many institutions and offered in many centers around the world. These have four testing modules; speaking, writing, reading and listening though the contents of these and their procedures in testing are different.
TOEFL IBT is computer based while IETLS is paper based. In the scoring and scoring procedures, the two tests are different in terms of scoring, scoring rubrics and the way the responses are rated. Moreover, both tests have different procedures of ensuring validity, reliability and the way the test results are interpreted.
Alderson, C., Krahnke, K., & Stansfield, C. (2008). Reviews of English Language Proficiency Tests. Teachers of English to Spekears of Other Languages, 358-368.
Buckendahl, C., Blackhust, A., & Rodeck, E. (2006). Adaptation within a Language: Considerations for Standard Setting. International Test Commission Conference (pp. 1-19). Brussels: University of Cambridge ESOL.
Education Transparency Services. (2009). Guidelines for the Assessment of English Language Learners. United States of America: Education Transparency Services.
Ekbatani, G. (2010). Measurement and Evaluation in Post-Secondary ESL. New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.
Esquinca, A., Yaden, D., & Rueda, R. (2008). Current Language Proficiency Tests and their Implications for Preschool English language learners. United States of America: University of Southern Califonia.
Hogan, M. (2005). Something New? Quite a Lot In IELTS, Actually. 18th Annual EA Education Conference 2005 (pp. 40-58). Australia: IELTS.
Solorzano, R. (2008). Review of Educational Research: High Stakes Testing; Issues, implications, and Remedies for English Language Learners. United States of America: American Educational Research Association.
TESL Canada Federation. (2011). Overview of English Language Proficiency Tests. Retrieved from TESL Canada Federation: https://www.tesl.ca/
The California State University. (2009). Focus on English: English Placement Test (EPT). California: The California State University.
Vecchio, A., & Guerrero, M. (1995). Handbook of English Language Proficiency Tests. New Mexico: New Mexico Highlands University.