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Navigating a more complex landscape for English proficiency testing

This special feature is sponsored by Cambridge Assessment English.

When COVID-19 rolled out across the world in the early months of 2020, it reached into every part of our lives. Our normal patterns of work, study, travel – not to mention our day-to-day interactions with colleagues, friends, and family – were all badly disrupted. Student mobility slowed and then largely ground to a halt through the first half of the year, leaving admissions processes, along with the travel and study plans of many thousands of students, in disarray.

In the midst of all of that confusion and delay, the normal cycles of admissions exams – including English proficiency testing – were upended as well. Test centres around the world were forced to close, normal test schedules were suspended, and language training centres and testing providers alike pivoted to online delivery.

As a result, many universities and colleges had to become much more flexible around English language testing requirements. Some institutions adopted test-optional policies, or more flexible admissions timelines for incoming students. Others began to accept a wider range of proficiency tests.

“Institutions were looking for additional options for testing,” says Nicola Johnson, global recognition manager for Cambridge Assessment English. “In the past, it would have been us approaching them. But what we found last year is that institutions were coming to us and wanting to talk about any new tests that may be appropriate for their admissions processes.”

It is fair to say that universities and colleges may have needed advice about English testing more than ever last year. Even before the pandemic, the field of standardised tests had expanded in recent years to include new entrants and a wider field of online, even on-demand, options. Looking back, COVID has proven to be an accelerator for those underlying trends and the result is a much more complex landscape of testing options for students and institutions alike.

“Life used to be really simple,” adds Ms Johnson. “You could count the different English tests on one hand. But throughout COVID what we’ve seen is a proliferation of new tests on the market. They are not all apples-to-apples options, however. Some are on-demand. Some have live proctoring and some don’t. It is all much harder to understand and I think it must be quite overwhelming for university admissions departments.”

We can imagine it might be challenging for students as well. Going abroad to study, and especially to study for an extended period in a degree programme, is an extremely important and complex decision. And so too is the student’s choice of English test, especially to the extent that that choice could play a part in how the student’s visa applications and admissions application are evaluated. In this sense, English test results are more than just a requirement for a university admissions office. They can also be a key support for the major decisions and processes that the student will go through in planning for study abroad. “We have proved over time that our results can be relied on to make those high-stake decisions,” says Ms Johnson of Cambridge’s portfolio of tests.

What this all adds up to is that students will now need to evaluate their choice of tests carefully, and so too will admissions offices. And both will likely be weighing the reliability of more established tests against the prospects of greater flexibility or access for students. Even so, Ms Johnson expects that we will see a return to more traditional testing cycles. “Owing to a combination of things – access to testing, economic factors, even the local school context of the candidates – many will still be more comfortable with traditional, in-person testing.”

That same emphasis on more established testing methods may also hold true for admissions offices. “In the past, higher education institutions wanted to keep things simple, and to keep a limited number of tests that they would accept,” she explains. “Going forward, they may want to accept a wider range of tests so that they don’t disadvantage themselves or students. But really when they are looking at those tests, they have to be fit for purpose. And that means looking at the quality and reliability of the test, the test content, how they are administered, the level of security around them, and how accessible they are for candidates.”

In the end, the best way to navigate that wider field of tests may be with the help of an experienced guide. “We see ourselves as a trusted expert in the field,” says Ms Johnson. “We are part of a university ourselves.”

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