Stuttering restart for crucial English language tests

Tests are back in some regions but not others, as international education braces for a staggered start

June 9, 2020
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The doors to English language testing centres are sliding open in some parts of the world as the international education industry’s support machinery begins a gradual post-pandemic reboot.

PTE Academic, the language assessment arm of education services multinational Pearson, has resumed limited testing in 34 nations. They include key countries such as India, Brazil, Nigeria, South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore, as well as the biggest source market, China, where Pearson said eight centres were now open.

Candidate numbers are being restricted to meet social distancing requirements, and test takers must wear face masks. Those candidates who are in groups at risk of coronavirus infection cannot visit exam sites. Students unable to attend test centres can access an online alternative, the Versant English Placement Test.

Meanwhile, International English Language Testing System (IELTS) tests have recommenced in more than 40 countries and territories, including Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.

Language testing plays a vital role in global higher education as a precondition for securing the visas foreigners need to study in English-speaking countries such as Australia, Canada, the Republic of Ireland, the UK and the US. Universities also use such exams to determine individuals’ capacity to study.

The British Council, which co-owns IELTS, said efforts were afoot to resume testing in China. James Shipton, the head of IELTS, said the council was working closely with China’s National Education Examinations Authority and hoped to announce developments in the “coming weeks”.

“Covid-19 has changed the way we currently offer testing, but it hasn’t stopped completely,” he said. An online test called IELTS Indicator has been introduced in areas where centre-based testing is suspended, to help triage students’ applications in the meantime.

The International Education Association of Australia (IEAA) said these developments were “good news” as the country considered pilot schemes to admit overseas students. Australian authorities have all but stopped processing student visas, citing the lack of support services – including language testing facilities – as a key reason.

IEAA boss Phil Honeywood said the association wanted the Department of Home Affairs to offer “conditional” visas, which would guarantee full visas once missing elements – such as language tests or medical checks by accredited health practitioners – had been fulfilled.

Such proposals reflect the relatively favourable prospects for international education providers in Australia and New Zealand, where a resumption of face-to-face classes is more immediately feasible than in Covid-afflicted northern hemisphere countries.

IELTS testing centres have been suspended until further notice throughout the US, the UK and much of Canada, but they have reopened in New Zealand and Australia. PTE Academic testing has resumed in eight Australian cities.

Some education agents are urging would-be students to consider Antipodean options. Australian trade agency Austrade reported that agents in Thailand, for example, were gradually switching their promotion to Australian providers.

The US-based Educational Testing Service (ETS) has moved its flagship Test of English as a Foreign Language (Toefl) online, launching a “special home edition” on 23 March. Public relations manager Stephanie Winters said it resembled in-person testing in content, format, on-screen experience, scoring and pricing, but “just delivered from the comfort of home”.

“While it varies by country and region, we have test centres around the world that are open for testing, operating with specific protocols in place to maintain the safety of test takers and test centre staff.”

While the special home edition is not available in China, ETS unveiled its “Toefl ITP Plus for China” in mid-May. It combines a Toefl test with a video interview conducted by a Beijing-based firm called Vericant.

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Reader's comments (1)

How does one apply to become a PTE assessor in India?