Assessing English Language Proficiency

Assessing English Language Proficiency

by Aimee Gruber, Senior Director of Outreach, The Enrollment Management Association

As international inquiries and applications continue to climb at both boarding and day schools, the ability to assess an international student’s readiness for an academic program is vital. Combining a deep and broad understanding of English proficiency with academic readiness leads to better-informed admission decisions and an increased chance for student success in English-speaking classes.

English proficiency tests (not the SSAT) are specifically intended to determine whether a student’s communication skills are appropriate for English-only instruction or whether academic support would be required. These tests will show how a student can put previous knowledge to use in a variety of unique contexts. As admission offices continue to manage increased interest from international applicants, they must also remember to regularly and appropriately train their readers and committees on how to interpret English proficiency score reports.

Some of the most common English proficiency tests used by independent schools are the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) Junior, International English Language Testing System (IELTS), and International Test of English Proficiency (iTEP). No matter which test(s) you use, it is critical to accept only official scores submitted to you directly from the testing organization. Remember to mention any testing affiliation on your website, requiring the receipt of official scores only. Language skills can develop significantly over time, so scores from any English proficiency test should not be accepted if the test was taken over two years ago.

The TOEFL Junior, provided by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), is intended for students aged 11-18. There are two forms of the TOEFL Junior test—the paper-based Standard and the computer-based Comprehensive. The Standard form includes listening comprehension, language form and meaning, and reading comprehension.The Comprehensive test includes reading comprehension, listening comprehension, speaking, and writing. The cost is $190, with registration fees that vary by location and currency. 

The IELTS is jointly owned by the British Council, IDP: IELTS Australia, and Cambridge English Language Assessment. The General Training test is typically for those entering English-speaking countries for secondary education or to work. Applicants to independent schools would therefore be submitting scores from the IELTS General Training test.This test is paper-based with four sections: listening, reading, writing, and speaking. The Speaking test includes an in-person interview with a trained and certified examiner. The cost is between $195 and $225, depending on location and currency.

The iTEP is developed by Boston Educational Services.There are several forms of this test; however, the form designed for secondary school applicants is the Secondary Level Assessment Test of English (SLATE).The SLATE has two types: SLATE-Core assesses grammar, listening, and reading skills, and scores are available instantly. SLATE-Plus assesses grammar, listening, reading, writing, and speaking and is 90 minutes in length. These scores are available within five business days. Both are internet based, although a paper version of SLATE-Core is available.The cost is a variable $99, depending on location and currency, and test centers can charge up to $10 in additional administrative fees.

These tests vary in terms of what they cover, how they are administered, how they are scored, and the rubrics used to report English language proficiency levels. It is important to look carefully at all of these factors in determining the test that fits best with your school, your admission process, and the age of the students you are assessing. While colleague admission directors are a great source of information for how these tests are operationalized and their experiences in using them, I encourage you to contact the providers directly with any questions you have about design, content, and scoring, as they are the experts on their assessments.

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