Purpose, Test, and Use of the IELTS
The International English Language Testing System more popularly known as IELTS is designed primarily to assess the ability of candidates who aspire to pursue their academics or job prospects in countries where English is the principal language of communication (IELTS Handbook, 2007). IELTS is recommended for individuals above the age of sixteen years and is cooperatively managed by the University of Cambridge ESOL Examination (Cambridge ESOL), the British Council, and the IDP: IELTS Australia.
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The IELTS is a test for assessing language ability and has been used since 1989 to determine whether the candidates are capable in the four skills of listening, reading, writing, and speaking. The test also “includes a face-to-face speaking test to ensure that candidates can communicate effectively in English” and is highly popular among all those who desire to “access opportunities in the study, careers, and migration throughout the English-speaking world and beyond” (www.ielts.org). The IELTS is a “test of communicative proficiency in English” and “not a test of grammar”.
Due to the recognition in several countries through international partnerships, the IELTS covers all the major national varieties of the English language and is available in more than a hundred and twenty countries worldwide. The recognition of the IELTS test in more than 6000 international institutions and organizations makes it preferred and highly popular among the potential candidates.
The test is based on the four crucial language skills including “listening, reading, writing and speaking” and comprehensively covers all these skills, by effectively meets the high international standards of language testing (IELTS Handbook, 2007). The IELTS is recognized by several universities and organizations in English-speaking countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Europe, and the United States of America.
The IELTS assessment test is available in two different formats; the Academic format and the General Training format. The Academic Reading and Writing Tests include reading and writing assessment tests to gauge the ability of potential undergraduate and postgraduate students to train and study in organizations where the medium of instruction is English (IELTS Handbook, 2007). The tests are crucial since admissions to universities and institutions for “undergraduate and postgraduate courses, is based on the results of these tests” (IELTS Handbook, 2007).
The General Training Reading and writing tests are not detailed and are more broad-based with the primary intention of assessing “the full range of formal language skills required for academic purposes” with greater emphasis on the “basic survival skills in broad social and educational context” (IELTS Handbook, 2007). The General Training IELTS tests are more suitable for potential candidates aspiring to visit English speaking countries for pursuing “secondary education”, to gain “work experience or training programs not at a degree level” and for “immigration purposes to Australia, Canada, and New Zealand” (IELTS Handbook, 2007).
The validity, the level of accuracy in the measurement of a test, has been confirmed as the most crucial quality of test utility (Bachman, 1990) and examinations are said to be valid when the level of accuracy in the prediction of the grades is high (Shoemaker, 2006). Content validity is said to be the most crucial of all the validities in the assessment of the learning outcomes of the students (Shoemaker, 2006). Validity is considered to be of prime importance in standardized tests since it relates to the degree of drawing meaningful inferences from the test scores (Bachman, 1990). The validity of a test is determined by the validation process in which the candidate taking the test presents appropriate evidence in support of the conclusions made, based on the test scores (Cronbach, 1971, in Crocker & Algina, 1986).
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Content validity is represented by designing the test to reflect and gauge the content that has been taught to the students (Shoemaker, 2006), and accordingly, the IELTS candidates are tested in all the crucial skills including listening, reading, writing, and speaking. The IELTS tests have been designed to apply to the “full range of ability from non-user to expert user” (IELTS Handbook, 2007). Accordingly, all the candidates are required to “take the same Listening and speaking tests”, the reading and writing tests ate different for Academic and General training purposes (IELTS Handbook, 2007).
The content validity of the IELTS assessments is enhanced by the inclusion of true-false questions, match the following and the multiple-choice questions in the form of “matrix where the rows or columns are the important elements of the content and the cells represent the associated test items” (Shoemaker, 2006). Additionally, the inclusion of maps, charts, and other illustrative materials for testing also serves to enhance the content validity of the IELTS. The academic reading test is completed within an hour where the students are required to read text and content from a variety of literary and non-literary works including “books, journals, and newspapers” which are sufficient in effectively reflecting the potential of the candidates to read diverse content.
The primary purpose of performance tests is to enable the examiners to effectively gauge how efficiently the candidates would be able to use the specified language under specific target conditions (Wesche, 1985). The IELTS accordingly includes a comprehensive writing-based test which requires the candidates to summarize in about 150 words the information gained from “a chart, table or diagram” so that the ability of the candidates to gauge information from important material and charts can be effectively reflected in the test. The writing test for general writing is broad-based and the candidates are expected to write a letter “asking for information or explaining a situation” in addition to presenting a “response to a statement or question”.
An important component of the validity of IELTS is the speaking test which is a face-to-face or direct conversation between the candidates and the examiner. This direct face-to-face speaking test plays a crucial role in improving the validity of the test because it promotes real tasks (Hughes, 2004).
However, Validity has been a serious cause of concern in the language testing domain, due to the diverse background of the examinees and their wide-ranging language utility. Shoemaker (2006) asserts that despite being developed by content experts, “nationally standardized achievement tests” “may not be a good fit for what was taught in a specific course” making it “inappropriate to assess course learning outcomes with a standardized test” refuting the traditional stand that “by following established procedures, it is possible to design a format for administering and scoring a valid and reliable language performance test (Jones, 1979, p. 50).
In the listening test, candidates are expected to listen to recorded texts which are “a mixture of monologues and conversations and feature a variety of English accents” which may be difficult for other ESL users to understand, especially because “the recording is heard only once” (Shoemaker, 2006). While the IELTS test covers the reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills which are primarily based on regular and common topics which are relevant to all candidates irrespective of their nationalities, the inclusion of maps from the American cities and towns is not appropriate for the IELTS tests since these tests should be designed from a global perspective.
Reliability is an important criterion in assessing the performance of the candidates taking a test since it is important for the test to provide consistent and replicable information regarding the ability of the candidates to use the desired language (Clark, 1975). Therefore, an assessment or test is said to be reliable when the scores attained through the test are “internally consistent” and similar even “if the test is administered at a different time of the day” (Shoemaker, 2006). The IELTS is a “professionally developed standardized” test of the English language which enables it to have “reliability coefficients of.90 or higher” as compared to “teacher-made tests” which have “coefficients of.50 or lower” (Ebel & Frisbie, 1991).
To provide consistent information about the performance of the candidate (Clark, 1975), the reliability of the IELTS test is ensured by way of multiple-choice tasks including short-answer questions, sentence completion, summary or flow-chart, labeling a diagram, matching the headings, identifying the candidate’s claims through simple yes/no questions, true/false questions, classification questions and matching the list and phrases questions ensure the reliability of the IELTS test. Through these tasks, the IELTS ensures the reliability of candidates’ performance through the two significant variables of simulation of the test tasks and the consistency of the ratings (Jones, 1979).
Nevertheless, the IELTS includes face-to-face interviews of the examiners with the candidates, necessitating disagreements between the judgments of human examiners due to the subjective interpretation, which may lead to disagreement between them (McNamara, 1996). Additionally, reliability is a serious issue when there is an inconsistency between two raters who evaluate the same test (Jones, 1979), especially in face-to-face interviews and the subjective portions of the test including the summary and paraphrasing tasks. With different administrators evaluating the test at different times and in different contexts, the potential for varying test results for the same candidate is greater in tests such as the IELTS which are conducted globally in different settings.
Scoring Method and Score Reporting
The IELTS is a criterion-referenced test (CRTs) “which compares learner’s performance, not to other learners, but to a set of criteria of expected performance or learning targets” (Cameron, 2001) and determines “…what test-takers can do and what they know, not how they compare to others (Anastasi, 1988, p. 102). By the CRTs, the IELTS reports the degree of performance of the students relative to a pre-determined performance level and candidates to receive Band scores on a scale of 1 to 9. 1 score is given for each of the skills of listening, reading, writing, and speaking and these are reported in “whole bands or half bands” for example 6.0 or 6.5. The scores in each skill are then averaged to produce an ‘overall band score’ which is between the scores 1 to 9 (IELTS Handbook, 2007). The assessment and scores are given to the candidates based on fixed criteria of (1) fluency and coherence (2) Lexical resource (3) Grammatical Range and Accuracy (4) Pronunciation.
The handbook of IELTS (2007) clearly states the band scale and enables the candidates to interpret the results without any problems. Band 9 indicates an excellent user of English and band 8 means that the user is very good. Band 7 denotes a good user while band 6 is given to a user who is competent as compared with band 5 who is a modest user. Limited use of the language is denoted by band 4 while band 3 denotes that the candidate is an “extremely” limited user of English. Band 2 and 1 are for candidates who are very poor and are intermittent users and nonusers respectively.
The report is comprehensive and also includes a descriptive statement that summarizes the level of English according to the band scores given to the candidates. The test report bears a stamp of validation and can be authentically verified through a Test Report Form Verification Service of the British Council, IDP: IELTS available online (https://ielts.ucles.org.uk). The results of the IELTS test are given to the candidates within two weeks of taking the examination and are not given over the phone, fax, or email. They are sent to the candidates or to their sponsors and institutions from where the test was taken.
Impact of the test
The IELTS is an effective tool for potential students and candidates who want to look at prospects in English-speaking countries due to their recognition and affiliation with several noted bodies and institutions, all over the western world. The use of the band scale to report the performance of the candidates which is backed by a summary of the band statements relative to the band scores provides the candidates to gauge their use of the language and how these results would enable them to choose the appropriate academic or career options effectively.
For example, the IELTS handbook (UCLES 1995, 1997) distinguish the language demanding courses including the fields of Medicine, Law, Journalism, Library Studies from the courses which less demand less proficiency in English including Agriculture, Pure Mathematics, Technology, Computer-based work, Telecommunication, etc. (UCLES 1995, p.27). Universities require different levels of English proficiency for the higher language proficiency courses and the lower language proficiency courses (Huong, 2001). Huong (2001) states an example of the Melbourne University which necessitates the band of IELTS 6.5 for the undergraduate courses in all the available faculties while the fields of Architecture, Building, and Planning, Arts and Education require a band of IELTS 7.0 at the Postgraduate level. Thus, the IELTS impacts and influences the lives and career potential of candidates since their band reports play a crucial role in the acceptance of these students into the desired universities and courses. A band score of a minimum of 5.5 is often desired by many colleges and depending on the country of origin, the band may be set at 6.5 for a visa of a student in Australia. Universities and colleges all over Europe necessitate a band of 7 or 7.5 for some programs and courses and the impact of IELTS can be gauged from the fact that it is an obligatory test for attaining visa status in Australia. It should be noted that the IELTS topics maintain a balance between the sciences, social sciences, and the humanities and the tasks are varied and designed to work successfully for independent learning. The inclination toward writing and reading makes sense as in the classroom there will always be implicit learning opportunities in speaking and listening in classroom interactions.
However, Templer (2004) asserts that the IELTS has become an “EFL testing condominium or cartel” due to the commoditization of the language, since “Never before in the planet’s history have so many of the poor spent so much to learn the language of the rich”. Researchers lament the fact that these standardized tests have been adopted almost unquestioned as the only ‘efficient, scientific’ option for an international ‘assessment marketplace’, creating a “hegemonic consensus on the inevitability of it all” (Mulderrig 2003).
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In conclusion, it can be affirmed that the IELTS is an important tool and gateway for entry into the Western world which necessitates the knowledge of necessary language skills including reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Although the test is designed by experts in the field, there is an emphasis on the student’s use and ability of the language rather than the actual skill and knowledge of the candidates. I agree that communication is important and the IELTS is an excellent assessment program to judge the efficiency of candidates with their use of the English language, but I would also like to reiterate the fact that skill and knowledge are crucial aspects that are necessary for development and progress in any field. Research confirms that there are equal chances of a correlation (Elder 1993; Bellingham 1993; Broadstock 1995) and no correlation (Fiocco 1992) between the IELTS scores and their academic outcomes. The standardized tests must therefore be made into more skill-based tests which would effectively bring out the knowledge of students in their required fields.
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