English Tests Compared
If you want to immigrate to Australia or pursue higher education down under, you’ll most likely need to submit a proof of your English language proficiency. The Australian Department of Immigration recognizes five test systems for this. Here is how they measure-up.
International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is by far the most recognizable and the most popular English language test in the world. 2.7 million people took the IELTS in 2015. The largest proportion of IELTS test-takers are younger, non-native speakers with strong academic backgrounds. Although anyone can take the IELTS test, the most common purpose of taking it is to pursue higher studies abroad. The test is available in two flavors, general and academic. The academic version is taken by 80% of all applicants and is the most widely accepted for immigration and university admissions.
IELTS was specifically designed for non-native speakers of English. It was developed by the people at Cambridge English Language Assessment. Because of the popularity of the test there is a profusion of test centers, training academies and online resources for preparation. Prestigious organizations such as the British Council help students prepare for IELTS through custom-made programs.
UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) and Department of Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) also accept IELTS scores. Nearly half of all test-takers write the IELTS for admission to a foreign university. Better ranked colleges ask for higher IELTS scores, although most require an overall score between band 6 and 7.5. Most colleges in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and UK readily recognize IELTS. So do more than 3000 academic institutions in the US.
IELTS scores are comparable to nearly all other English proficiency tests. For example, an IELTS band score of 8.0 is equivalent to a CAE score of 80 or CAE grade A or CEFR level C2. Please note that although CEFR is widely recognized by academic institutions, it’s not accepted for migration to Australia. IELTS is meant to test a broad range of language levels, from CEFR Level A1 up to C2. This is unlike some other tests such as the CAE which targets a specific proficiency level.
IELTS scores all four skills, listening, reading, writing and speaking. It also provides an overall band score from ‘band 1’ (non-user) to ‘band 9’ (expert user). Thus IELTS is much more than a pass/fail test as it shows you exactly where you are in terms of English language skills. It is also one of the shortest English language tests. The test format includes listening: 30 minutes (+ 10 minutes transfer time), reading: 60 minutes, writing: 60 minutes and speaking: about 15 minutes. The listening, reading and writing parts are completed in a single session of 150 minutes without a break. The speaking test can be scheduled up to seven days before or after. IELTS is a paper-based test. Test-takers use wireless headsets to listen to audio for the listening portion and mark answers on a scoring sheet. All applicants at a center attempt the same portions of the test at the same time. A single center may have hundreds of seats. Also, unlike some other tests the sections do not overlap. The speaking assessment takes place as a one-to-one interview with an examiner in an interview room. The preparation materials include a variety of accents and writing styles to minimize bias.
Some critics claim that due to the human evaluation of IELTS there is some bias and test scores are not standardized across centers. Regardless, the acceptance and recognition of IELTS scores remains high worldwide. There used to be a 90 day period before one could re-take the test but this has been discontinued. Test scores remain valid for two years.
Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) Internet-based test (IBT) is arguably the second most popular English language proficiency test in the world after IELTS. Before 2005 TOEFL was administered as a computer-based test (CBT) and paper-based test (PBT). TOEFL is managed by the world’s largest private nonprofit educational testing and assessment organization called Educational Testing Service (ETS).
TOEFL is available in multiple versions such as the Institutional Testing Program (ITP) and TOEFL Junior tests. Before registering for TOEFL it is best to check with the organization that has asked for your test scores and establish the correct version. TOEFL is conducted more than 50 times a year or almost once every week at larger test centers.
The reading and listening portions of TOEFL may include extra questions that do not count toward the total score. ETS has shared good reasoning for this format. The listening and speaking sections include English, North American, New Zealand and Australian accents since one may find these during studies at a foreign university.
A number of sample tests and preparation materials are available online. Scoring guides for the speaking assessment can also be found. TOEFL is not scored at the test centers. Since TOEFL is internet-based, the data is managed at a centralized scoring network that ensures consistent scoring standards. TOEFL-IBT is scored between 0 and 120 points. Scores are posted online nearly 10 days after the test. Test-takers can download a PDF report of their scores. ETS also sends your scores to the institutions and agencies you select. Scores are valid for two years.
Like IELTS, the TOEFL score does not signify a pass or fail. Individual institutions set their own thresholds. You can take the test any number of times as long as you pay the test fee each time. There has to be a mandatory minimum gap of 12 days between two attempts.
Pearson Test of English (PTE) Academic is one of several Pearson Language Tests. These are accredited by the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA) which is a government agency in England and Ireland. PTE Academic is also endorsed by the organization that manages the GMAT. Consequently PTE Academic is recognized by Harvard Business School, INSEAD and Yale University in addition to hundreds of other business schools. The test opens doors to nearly 6,000 organizations in Australia and the UK.
PTE Academic also aligns with the very popular and widespread Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) for Languages. As a result the test has high acceptability with educational institutions in several European countries. PTE is available in multiple versions including PTE General, PTE Young Learners and Business English Tests. Make sure to select the correct version of PTE according to where you’re applying.
Getting your PTE Academic scores is faster than any other test. One can schedule the test as little as twenty-four hours in advance. The results are provided in merely 5 days so you can be done from start to scores inside of a week! Test centers are available in more than 50 countries. At larger centers the test is available 363 days a year with multiple daily slots. Since the test is internet-based, it can theoretically administered for just one applicant. This makes PTE very flexible for test-takers.
As any other language proficiency test PTE includes reading, writing, listening and speaking portions. What’s unique about PTE is that it combines sections, testing multiple skills simultaneously. Moreover in the reading and listening portions of the test the test-taker is marked negatively for incorrect responses. The overall score for any section however, cannot be less than zero.
The test consists of scenario-based exams and is graded entirely by machines. The people at Pearson Language Tests have shown that if the test is read by a computer rather than a human grader, it can reduce the time to provide test results and eliminate human bias. They claim their test is the most authentic and realistic assessment of test-takers’ language proficiency. The oral portion of PTE for most regions is graded centrally by assessors in London.
PTE scoring scale ranges from 10 to 90. Typically for undergraduate studies one needs to score between 51 and 61. For postgraduate studies a score between 57 and 67 is accepted by most institutions.
Certificate in Advanced English (CAE) was developed by the people at Cambridge English Language Assessment (previously known as University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations). The same body also manages several widely recognized accreditation and certification programs for English language trainers worldwide. Unlike IELTS and TOEFL, and as the name suggests, CAE aims at level C1 of the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) for Languages. Thus, you need to score 160 or better to be successful on CAE.
The test includes four sections including reading, writing, listening and speaking. With CAE test-takers have the option to choose the computer-based or paper-based version. The latter takes a bit longer to evaluate. Other than these two main variants there are many versions of the exam depending on user type such as preliminary, starters, movers, financial, advanced, legal and trainer tests. You must check which variant is required for your needs before registering. Preparation materials including free sample papers are available from the official CAE website.
The speaking portion of CAE is a unique face-to-face interaction with two examiners present. Two candidates are assessed at the same time so there are four persons in the room. The second examiner acts purely as an assessor and does not join in the discussion. Candidates speak with the interviewer and with each other, although the conversation never takes the form of a three-way group discussion.
The exam is conducted at schools that are used as test centers. Some features are center-dependent. For example the certificate is sent to the exam centre and they send it on to the test-taker. Results are made available two weeks after the exam for the computer-based variant and approximately four weeks later for the paper-based test. The scoring grid ranges from 160 to 210. Those who score more than 160 on CAE are considered successful and receive a hard copy certificate within three months from the exam date. A separate score is generated for each of the four skills. All test-takers get a Cambridge Statement of Results, a CEFR level and a grade. The CEFR level could be B2, C1 or C2. Various organizations accept CAE for study, work and immigration. A list of such organizations is available on the exam website.
Occupational English Test (OET) is an assessment of English proficiency, specifically for the healthcare sector. It is designed to test the language skills of those who wish to work in the medical profession in an English speaking country. Consequently, if you’re not in the medical profession, OET is not meant for you. Healthcare bodies in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore readily recognize OET. The test covers 12 medical disciplines as listed on their website. Test-takers must pick their specific profession at the time of registering. Some sections of the test can have profession-specific material.
Healthcare is a demanding sector and effective communication can make all the difference. The test was designed in the 1980s at the University of Melbourne’s Language Testing Research Centre and has been developed continuously since. Cambridge English Language Assessment has also been involved in its evolution. OET is now owned by Cambridge Boxhill Language Assessment. Each of the four sections are graded between ‘A’ and ‘E’ where ‘A’ is the best. OET provides no overall grade. The organizations that accept OET specify what grade an applicant must meet. Most organizations ask for a minimum ‘B’ grade in all sections. OET is also recognized by the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection for a number of visa categories.
The test has four sections that include listening (about 50 minutes), reading (60 minutes), writing (45 minutes) and speaking (about 20 minutes). The test is administered on paper and graded by human assessors centrally at the OET Centre. Some part of the reading section is graded by computer. For the speaking part, the test-day interviewer is not involved in the assessment process. Audio files and scripts are collected and centrally processed. The listening part includes a mock consultation between a patient and doctor. Test-takers are expected to take notes to help with answering questions. The writing portion may require the test-taker to write a letter of referral, transfer, discharge or professional advice. The reading passage is also related to a healthcare topic followed by multiple choice questions. The speaking portion consists of a one-to-one interview.
OET is available as many as 12 times a year. Applicants need to register three weeks in advance. Results are made available online nearly 16 business days after the test. Results are valid for two years. Despite the medical content used in the test OET remains a test of English language proficiency and not of medical proficiency.