The price tag on knowing English

Are exams like the IELTS and TOEFL useful as indicators of proficiency in the language?

May 29, 2016 05:00 pm | Updated September 16, 2016 10:07 am IST

Isn't it time we took a re-look at the utility value of these language tests?

Isn't it time we took a re-look at the utility value of these language tests?

We’ll give you a word and you are required to tell us what it means to you: Flower.

Niranjana Ramesh, currently a PhD student in the United Kingdom, remembers this as one of the questions she was asked as part of the ‘Speaking Test’ at her International English Language Testing System (IELTS) exam. “Back then, I was preoccupied with the application process and didn’t notice how weird this question actually was. In my response, I said something about having seen some flowers on my way to the exam. But looking back now, I realise it was indeed a rather ridiculous question,” she says in an email.

She even wondered if the examiner on the other side, possibly an Indian too, cringed a bit while asking such a silly question. The test did not take it into account that Niranjana had been schooled in English all through her life and that the English language wasn’t exactly ‘foreign’ to her.

Exams such as the IELTS and the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) have been around for more than five decades now, acting as the coast guards of the English, American and Australian seas, making sure everyone that wants to work, study or migrate to these countries does so with their validation. In fact, like it says on the TOEFL website, ‘Be Anything and Study Anywhere with the TOEFL test’, grimly reminding one of the possibilities of the world but only after one writes the test.

The question that some students and working professionals are asking today is this: Are these exams really useful? Of course, this is not because of a few silly questions in the exam but a variety of reasons, they point out.

For example, Naveen Prakash, a PhD student in the U.S., feels the rationale behind the test itself is a bit flawed. “Almost every Indian student here that I know has a bachelor’s or a master’s in engineering or science, and, in most cases, he or she has lived in an urban city in India. This doesn’t mean all of them are going to ace the TOEFL, but they can definitely converse in English. Some may have heavy accents, but I am yet to come across an Indian student who ‘really needed’ to take an English test,” he says.

“You can probably prepare for the reading and writing sections in the exam. I don’t know about the listening and speaking sections. Also, if you can listen to three-minute conversations over headphones, does that mean you can sit through and understand an hour-long lecture?” he asks.

Most importantly, Naveen says, the biggest problem with these exams is the fact that the scores are valid only for two years, “which is just ridiculous. I was considering moving to a different university two years after I got here, and I had to prove that I was still good at English! I do think of it as a money-making scheme for I had to spend 140 dollars even after I was in the 90th or 95th percentile the first time.”

Average score of an Indian

However, those in favour of the exams argue that this frustration is true for only a minority, and these are people whose language skills are fantastic. “The majority actually comprises people with average language skills. If A1 is a level or band with poor language skills, A2, a bit better than that logic, C1 is proficient and C2 is an expert. Most Indian students are in the B category,” says a member of the exam staff of IELTS.

The test statistics on point out that as of 2014, India’s mean band score in the IELTS Academic Test is 5.9 out of 9. It is 6.2 in listening, 5.8 in Reading, 5.6 in writing and 5.8 in speaking. In the IELTS (General) test, which is a test taken by those who wish to work in a native-English speaking country, the average score is 6.2.

Instructors of English argue that those who find these tests ridiculous fail to take into account a large number of students in India for whom English is not even the second language. “The exam is really relevant for Indian applicants because there is a difference between studying English in school and knowing the language. Most candidates can barely string a sentence together and their awareness of punctuation and grammar is quite average, too. From the university’s point of view, they would need these exams to ensure their quality is maintained,” says Nidhi Bungale, an English and French Language specialist based in Bengaluru.

“Look at our education system today. Every nook and corner has a school or a college. And not all of them are competent in terms of language education. If these students want to study abroad, and say, they’ve been in a Tamil medium all their lives, they wouldn’t have the required language levels to do their postgraduation. For these students, exams such as the TOEFL and IELTS are hugely relevant,” says an instructor of English at The British Council.

Validation of a test as a concept

“If you look at everything that is done in the test, the listening, speaking and writing sections, the content comprises everything that they will be doing or saying in that particular country,” adds The British Council instructor.

It is here that the question of what the flower means to Niranjana comes to mind again. “The most annoying aspect of the test is the infantile reasoning that you need to prove your proficiency in English to merely manage living in an English-speaking country or to assimilate there. What is the test supposed to enable you to do? Read road signs? Listen to announcements on the subway network, which are anyway unintelligible in places such as NYC, but available in various languages including Korean and Arabic in a non-English-speaking city such as Paris? Why would that be so difficult to learn and manage only in English-speaking countries of the global north?” asks Niranjana.

Of course, testing a student’s fluency in the language becomes relevant especially when the student will be expected to go through viva exams and present research papers at the university. But can a two-and-a-half-hour test efficiently test that? What if the student wants to proofread his writing test, what if he is a shy person and takes more time to articulate what he has to say, ask students. “I agree that a larger question about the validity of test as a concept in itself is something that can be thought about. But how else can you sift through the volume of applicants?” argues the IELTS staff member.

The instructor at The British Council adds that in the General Test, one of the tasks required of you is to write a letter, which is something one would need to know how to do in an office.

Niranjana argues, “If your employer thinks you have the skills to work in Seattle or Edinburgh, why then should the U.K. or the U.S. governments need you to prove that you are proficient in English in order to do those jobs?”

So, we’re back again to the question of the utility of these exams. Does preparing for these exams help one learn or improve their English, at least? Instructors for IELTS and TOEFL explain that preparing for an exam is different from learning a language. “When you go to a coaching centre, the instructors can teach you how to perform well in the exam, give you the skills of time management, some strategies and tips, and, at the most, brush up your knowledge of basic grammar and so on. They are not going to teach you English,” says Nidhi.

What happens to those language-disadvantaged candidates who are schooled in a different language or are products of poor language training in their life, then? “There are people who can easily score a 6.5 and their language skills can still be pretty average. That can happen too,” agrees the British Council instructor.

Does it then boil down to the economics of who can pay and who cannot? Other examiners point out that there are a lot of people who take the test a number of times to try and get the score they want. Whether that happens or not is a different matter, they say. There is one final stakeholder who gets a say in the matter, too: the university. The consensus among both students and examiners is that the English test score is just one of the conditions to be met. Even with a 6 or 6.5, students can get an admission into their desired university. The statement of purpose and the personal interview are important considerations in themselves, too. Perhaps then these exams are just procedural, but ones that are expensive, of course. Whether they really ‘safeguard’ the interests of foreign students, one is not sure. But more importantly, are they mere money making schemes?

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