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English test for international students isn’t new, just more standardised

Many English providers already meet the “new” standards. Shutterstock

Since it was introduced in the 1800s, standardised testing in Australian schools has attracted controversy and divided opinion. In this series, we examine its pros and cons, including appropriate uses for standardised tests and which students are disadvantaged by them.

International students’ English language skills is a perennial topic for debate. A number of changes were announced by Education Minister Simon Birmingham in early October. There has been some confusion about these changes in the media, which deserve clarification.

No new tests, just new standards

The press has reported that international students who have completed an English studies course will now have to pass a new English test for entry into university courses. On ABC AM, the tests were also portrayed as being a new, additional measure. In fact, there is no further standardised testing being implemented by the government, but rather a change in regulation.

Simon Birmingham has not corrected this misconception. In response, English Australia (a national body for English language providers) produced a media release to reassure potential international students that there is, in fact, no additional testing involved.

What has changed, however, is Standard P4, where English providers must each set their own formal measures showing that their outcomes match related pathways to university programs. Many English providers currently meet these requirements and engage in assessment using informal standardised English tests, benchmarking against other English providers, and (for the best providers) tracking students at university to verify the effective preparation of those students. The new guidelines have been made in direct consultation with the English language provider industry.

The expansion of the regulatory standards to the vocational sector is interesting, since it now applies to:

“all courses provided, or intended to be provided, to overseas students that are solely or predominantly of English language instruction.”

Previously, VET English courses did not have to maintain a class size of 18 or less, nor did they have to provide a minimum of 20 hours per week face-to-face class time. This is important because VET English courses can be used as a pathway into university, and the different practices means students have different English outcomes. Students with lower English skills have a lesser ability to engage with higher-level language required for study.

The changes will not, however, affect foundation programs that focus on academic skills, with a lesser focus on language skills teaching.

The problem with short courses

One issue these changes do not address is the pressure English providers are under to produce students with proficient English in short periods of time. A quality ELICOS provider that tracks the outcomes of their students may offer a course that takes 15-20 weeks, whereas another provider might offer a similar 10-week course elsewhere. Universities will accept both. There is no standardised framework to establish equivalence. The market favours the shortest course for the quickest university enrolment.

These short courses base their educational approach on the idea that it takes 10 weeks of intensive study to improve English by a certain amount, specifically an increase of 0.5 on the IELTS English test (scores range from 0 to 9). University students are usually required to have IELTS 6.0-7.0, depending on the course.

Often, students go to an English provider until they achieve an equivalent level of English to IELTS 6.0-7.0, but note that their levels are determined internally by the ELICOS provider itself, and the student can then go to university without being tested independently. The new ELICOS standards place greater accountability on English providers, since now they need to have formal processes to show that their student outcomes are of a similar quality to other measures or pathways used for tertiary admission. This step towards standardising, however small, is welcome, because it should reveal differences in outcomes for different types of English course.

This change may make ELICOS providers take into account that students get very different results in 10-12 weeks. This depends on how proficient students already are when they start the English course. Low levels of English can be improved rapidly, but this slows as IELTS scores become higher, especially approaching university-level English. This effect continues for international students who go on to undertake university study. By the end of their degrees, some students will have no change or even a lower IELTS score than when they started university: none seem to improve by more than 1.0 in their scores, even after three years.

Sink or swim

When reading media articles such as this, people may wonder how international students are even allowed into university if their English is not adequate.

It is true that universities have traditionally allowed students to enrol at a level of English where the IELTS test makers state “more English study is needed”. The university’s IELTS levels are then used as a benchmark for other university entry methods, such as ELICOS, and to set scores on comparable English tests (such as TOEFL).

Students who need to develop their English further will either sink or swim. Many students swim and tread water, but we hear a lot about those who sink, and some are driven to cheat. The changes in regulation do not deal with these issues.

Commissioning research on how long it actually takes for students at different levels of English to be ready for university study might be useful. This would provide the ELICOS sector with a realistic idea of how long their courses need to be, and the universities with a better understanding of how much preparation should be expected.

Universities, study agents, and overseas students also need to be made aware of how important it is to have solid English skills for university study and to become competitive in the workforce. This may help all parties understand that extra time spent on English language study may make all the difference for the future.

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