17 October, 2014
A private company has just launched what it calls "the world's first free standardized English test." Anyone with an Internet connection can take the test for free.
The new exam is called the EFSET, which is short for Education First Standardized English Test. The company, Education First, is known by the letters EF. It operates schools and offices in more than 50 countries.
Minh Tran is EF's Director of Research and Academic Partnerships. He estimates there are two billion English language learners worldwide. Many of them are interested in attending an American college or university. To do so, foreign students need to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language – better known as TOEFL. Tran says many foreigners are not wealthy enough to take the TOEFL, which can cost more than $250. In addition, test takers often have to travel overnight to reach an official testing site.
For example, it costs $175 to take the TOEFL Internet-based test in Cambodia. The World Bank says the average Cambodian worker earns only about $1,000 per year. That means the cost of taking the TOEFL is about 17.5 percent of the average worker's yearly wages.
It is not just individuals who find the test pricey. Some governments find the costs to be prohibitive.
Mr. Tran says EF is in talks with education ministries in several countries. He hopes governments will use the EFSET to test millions of employees and students. He notes that not everyone needs official results from the TOEFL or IELTS – the International English Language Testing System.
"Well, it depends on who you are. If you are a beginner, or if you are someone who does not need to send your certified English scores to a third party, such as a school or an employer or immigration officer, then I would say the EFSET serves a unique function."
Mr. Tran believes that EFSET meets the highest values in language testing. The test has been through years of research and psychometric analysis. Psychometrics is the method or process of mental measurement.
The new test was tested, or piloted, on thousands of students. The EFSET uses special computer software that makes the questions easier or harder, depending on one's performance. The EFSET measures all English levels, while the IELTS and TOEFL only measure from moderate to advanced.
"The EFSET is unique and innovative and really groundbreaking in the sense that it gives free online access very much like a MOOC [Massive Open Online Course] would to anyone who interested in measuring their English proficiency level."
There is a 50-minute and a two-hour version of the test, which its developers are calling the EFSET Plus. Both versions test only reading and listening skills. Will speaking and writing questions be added in the future? Mr. Tran is hopeful.
"That's a very good question, and a question that our experts are working on right now. There are many ways that you can test productive skills -- speaking and writing. What's difficult is standardizing those assessments and making sure the different graders have the same reliability and listening to the same samples or reading the same sample that they have the same score."
IELTS and TOEFL still use humans to rate the speaking and writing sections. So far, no software program can measure speaking and writing ability as well as a human being.
It is too early to know if colleges and universities will accept EFSET results for admission. Julie Soper is Assistant Director of International Admissions at American University in Washington, DC. She finds the concept of a free online English test interesting but she also has some reservations.
"It's very intriguing. I like the idea that it's free and that it's easy to access—that's a huge deal for students who are maybe in areas where they can't get to a TOEFL, can't get to an IELTS. So that's great. But, with it being online, I mean of course there's the question of being able to properly validate the person's identity and have that security around that test score. And then, additionally, with not having all of the components of the exam that TOEFL and IELTS have I just wonder about it. I have not done any research on my own about it, so just am curious."
Even without a speaking and writing section, some English language teachers are hopeful about the new test. Mark Dever is an English Language Fellow at the Police Language School in Indonesia's capital.
"This test has great potential. This test can help those with fewer resources. For too long those who could afford the [TOEFL] courses were the ones that passed. This test has a chance to help the teachers inside the classroom as well because it's an easy, free way for me to assess the level of my students, along with a way to perform a quick, free needs analysis for them as well."
EF offers the test for free as a way to advertise other EF products to possible users. The test was launched last month and tens of thousands of students have taken it. Tran says feedback from students has been good.
Time will tell whether this new test is a game-changer in the standardized test industry.
The test can be found at efset.org.
I'm Jim Tedder.
Adam Brock wrote and produced this story for Learning English. Hai Do and George Grow edited the story.
Words in this Story
launch – v. to offer or sell (something) for the first time
prohibitive – adj. so high that people are prevented from using or buying something
pilot – v. done as a test to see if a larger program, study, should be done
intriguing – adj. extremely interesting
game changer – n. an event, idea, or procedure that effects a significant shift in the current manner of doing or thinking about something.
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