English language testing constitutes a significant part of the English teaching industry. Every year, millions of students take various tests to demonstrate their proficiency in English. To put this in perspective, the two most popular English tests, TOEFL and IELTS, are taken by approximately 2.3 million and 3.5 million students, respectively, each year.
The global English proficiency test market exceeded $9.87 billion in 2021 and is projected to reach over $27.8 billion by 2030. This booming industry means there are many test options.
“The whole sector is evolving at a rapid pace and it’s important to keep up with these changes,” said Francesca Woodward, Global Managing Director for English at Cambridge University Press & Assessment. Woodward pointed out an increasing shift to digital solutions, sharing that Cambridge is changing the way computer-based exams are delivered with the new Cambridge English Qualifications Digital.
“Assessment and assessment literacy will grow in importance, but what is assessed, and how it is assessed will change and become far more contextualized.”
They are also discussing ways to personalize learning experiences, harness AI and machine learning aligned to human needs, and integrate learning and assessment into learners’ journeys.
Mike Solly, Head of English Research, British Council and contributor to the Future of Education publication, agreed, saying, “Assessment and assessment literacy will grow in importance, but what is assessed, and how it is assessed will change and become far more contextualized.”
Beyond testing for formal qualification purposes such as immigration and university admissions, language proficiency tests are increasingly used to provide individualized information to inform instructional content and strategies, opening the door to personalized instruction.
English teachers instructing students of all ages may use proficiency tests to identify students’ initial language levels, track learning progress, target instruction based on findings and better support continuous learning progress. In addition to teachers using tests for instruction, academic institutions use them to accurately place students and employers use them for hiring and recruitment, to determine certain language skill levels specific to jobs, for internal promotions or transfers and as part of internal learning and development programs.
While these testing uses may not require formal certification, they do serve important purposes in the language learning journey, improving student learning outcomes and speed of language acquisition, and providing instructors, employers and students with valuable information that may be used for their unique objectives.
Purpose of English proficiency testing
In the ELT world, it is customary to distinguish between high-stakes and English language testing and testing for other purposes. High-stake testing usually refers to tests like the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), IELTS (International English Language Testing System) or PTE Academic (Pearson Test of English Academic) that are used to determine English language learners’ eligibility for admission to academic institutions, career advancement or immigration into English-speaking countries. These tests provide the learner with an official certificate attesting to the examinee’s English proficiency, and learners often engage teachers for test preparation help.
Bridge offers Micro-credentials in teaching test prep, including Teaching TOEFL Test Prep, Teaching IELTS Exam Prep and Teaching PTE Test Prep. Each 20-hour, online course delves into all aspects of the test, different versions of the test and strategies to help prepare students to be successful.
“Progress tests are more sophisticated because they are typically connected to the curriculum.”
Testing for other purposes aims to ascertain a learner’s level of English proficiency without necessarily providing an official certification. For example, ACTFL K-12 assessments are used to assess students’ language learning progress based on the grade level of the learner and proficiency target for the course. Similarly, Avant Assessment offers STAMP tests for progress monitoring of students and professionals, with options to assess only certain skills. Teachers may use them to place new students in the appropriate language-class level, to determine areas of instruction needing improvement or to find ways to support students best, and employers may use them to supplement or assess eligibility for a job.
Carlos Pizarro Navia, Director of Bridge’s Corporate English Language Program in Latin America, describes tests for other purposes as a spectrum of tests that provide different information to teachers, students, and other stakeholders. Bridge provides teacher-led courses to businesses in a variety of industries and teachers often use proficiency tests to track learner progress.
“Progress tests are more sophisticated because they are typically connected to the curriculum,” Pizarro Navia said. “Students are tested during the course to determine if they are on pace, ahead or behind. By determining the learner’s level of proficiency, progress over time and areas in need of improvement, these tests help guide both teachers and students through the learning progress and inform teaching and learning strategies along the way.”
Let’s start by exploring some of the language proficiency test options available for academics.
Classroom tests for placement and progress assessment
English placement tests are crucial to assign English language learners to the proper class level. Students placed in a class that is too easy for them will neither be challenged nor progress, while students put in a class that is too difficult will likely be unable to follow and become uninterested or frustrated.
“One of the big priority areas for Cambridge is how we fully integrate assessment into people’s learning journeys because we believe this is highly effective.”
Likewise, progress tests help teachers measure the effectiveness of their teaching and adjust their strategies to students’ needs. As for students, these tests offer them tangible proof that their language level is improving or that they need to increase their efforts.
“One of the big priority areas for Cambridge is how we fully integrate assessment into people’s learning journeys because we believe this is highly effective,” Woodward said. “We’ve developed tests, books, toolkits, free online resources and other support materials that can be used in the classroom by teachers and students.”
Tests for young learners
Testing young learners’ English proficiency requires some finessing and specific parameters that consider the cognitive capabilities of children. K-7 students may not be used to testing, may not understand the importance of testing and may become anxious or bored when confronted with a test. Thus, teachers need a testing format that appeals to young students and engages their attention in a reassuring and encouraging way.
Proficiency tests may provide information about specific competencies to inform instructional strategies when teaching concepts such as English grammar, reading comprehension, ESL vocabulary and much more. Let’s look at some tests designed specifically for young learners.
Cambridge offers three English assessment levels for young learners between 6 and 12. Pre A1 Starters is the first level, followed by A1 Movers and A2 Flyers. All three tests assess young children’s English proficiency in all four skills. These adaptive tests increase or decrease the level of difficulty based on the answers provided by the examinee. Rather than providing pass-or-fail results, the Cambridge tests give all children a certificate of achievement attesting to their level of proficiency. They are designed to appeal to young learners, using cartoons/drawings and topics familiar to children, and to minimize testing anxiety.
“This is a great way to help pinpoint areas of improvement and it helps to ensure learners are ready to sit their Cambridge English Qualification.”
“Our Cambridge placement test, for example, is a fantastic way for teachers to quickly find students’ levels, which can help save them so much time,” Woodward said. Cambridge provides access to preparation materials, including official practice tests and a mock test toolkit for teachers.
“Our Trainer series of books for example have practice tests, guidance and tips that can be integrated into the classroom,” she said. “There is also Test & Train, which is our online tool, which allows students and teachers to carry out on-the-go exam practice. This is a great way to help pinpoint areas of improvement, and it helps to ensure learners are ready to sit their Cambridge English Qualification.”
This test, designed by the University of Michigan, is an American English exam for upper primary and lower secondary school students. The test is multilevel to meet the needs of classrooms with learners at different stages of proficiency. It is available as a 3-skill or 4-skill exam and provides a certificate and personalized feedback to every test taker.
Benchmark test – Young Learners by Pearson
This test assesses language abilities in children ages 6-14 for levels A1-B1 in accordance with the Common European Frame of Reference (CEFR) and Global Scale of English (GSE) standards. The test is suitable as a diagnostic and formative tool to monitor progress and to measure students’ readiness for high-stakes exams. It is designed to appeal to young learners and mitigate test-related stress by using “fun, interactive, game-like activities suitable for young learners.” The test, which can be taken on tablets, laptops or desktop computers, assesses all four language skills, provides information on the learners’ English proficiency level, and delivers recommendations to educators to help them devise an appropriate teaching plan.
Interested in teaching young learners? Learn more about the Specialized Certificate Teaching English to Young Learners.
Tests for primary and secondary learners
Tests of English for primary and secondary learners are often used to place English language learners in the proper level class. They can also be used to monitor students’ progress across the school years.
This assessment measures English proficiency according to the three ACTFL standards (interpersonal listening and speaking, presentational writing, interpretive reading and interpretive listening), which correspond to the three modes of communication. ACTFL assessments differ from most language assessments because they test proficiency through authentic tasks. The ACTFL K-12 Assessment of Performance toward Proficiency in Languages (AAPPL) includes tasks such as virtual video chats, email writing or using an app in the target language. Thus, it provides a reliable measure of the student’s ability to communicate in real-life situations. The test is available in three forms corresponding to grades (3-12) and proficiency levels (novice low-advanced low).
The EF Standard English Test is a free test that measures the examinee’s reading and listening abilities. Any individual can take this test, but EF also offers a group testing option for schools and universities. This option provides a built-in reporting system and free and unlimited test use and is simple to set up. It affords educational institutions an economical, fast and easy way to test students’ proficiency in reading and listening. The test is available in a short or long version. The EF Quick Check is only 15 minutes long and is not adaptive. The EF SET English Certificate is 50 minutes long and is an adaptive test aligned with CEFR standards.
Interested in teaching teenagers? Learn more about the Specialized Certificate Teaching English to Teenagers.
Tests for adult learners
There are many reasons adult English language learners may want to test their level of English proficiency. Adult learners may want to access academic institutions or improve their language level if they reside in an English-speaking country, enter job training programs, acquire a secondary school or equivalent diploma or simply monitor their progress. In the United States, for example, states use learners’ assessments in adult basic education (ABE), adult ESL and family literacy programs for all the purposes mentioned above. Tests are also used to evaluate the program’s accountability, especially if the program receives federal funding.
Adult learners testing English proficiency for professional purposes may do so independently or through a company-sponsored program. Some of the tests that follow are commonly used by employers, but we’ll explore even more workplace tests in the subsequent section.
Let’s look at a few of the most popular tests for adult learners.
Pearson, a multinational publishing and education company based in the UK, created this test. The Pearson Test of English General is an international certification of English proficiency for non-native speakers wanting to apply to higher education institutions. It is accepted by hundreds of schools and academic institutions and over twenty government bodies worldwide. The test is suitable for learners aged 16+ and measures language proficiency based on the ability to communicate and carry out real-world tasks. It consists of two parts, a written paper and a spoken test, and aims to evaluate all four skills (reading, writing, listening and speaking). The test is administered seven times a year in authorized centers around the world.
TOEFL ITP by ETS
For students 16 and older, this series of tests measures all four language skills and was created for the following purposes: placement, progress monitoring, exiting an English learning program by demonstrating the acquired proficiency, admissions (with some important limitations) and as documentation for scholarship programs. ETS is careful to stress that these tests are not a replacement for the TOEFL iBT and should not be used as such.
Suitable for individuals aged 12 and up, this test measures proficiency in reading and listening skills, and grammar and vocabulary. The test is used for diagnostic purposes to place students at the proper level class or to determine which Cambridge test they are ready to study for. An exciting feature of this test is that it features a variety of English accents and texts from several English-speaking countries, thus implicitly recognizing the international character of contemporary English.
These are created by LanguageCert, an Ofqual-recognized organization. The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) regulates qualifications, examinations and assessments in England. The tests cover the A1-C2 proficiency range as well as “all visa type requirements to live, work or study in the UK.” LanguageCert test results are also accepted in over 90 countries worldwide as evidence of English proficiency for academic, work, immigration and professional purposes. In total, LanguageCert offers six tests: Academic (university and college admission), General (work and general purposes), ESOL (study and general purposes), LTE (professional purposes), UKVI SELT (immigration to the UK) and TfL (English Exam for Transport for London, for private-hire drivers who are required to have a B1 level of English).
International English Language Testing System is co-owned by the British Council, IDP IELTS and Cambridge University Press & Assessment. This is one of the most internationally recognized sets of English tests, and it is accepted by many educational institutions, governments and employers around the world. IELTS includes three testing options. IELTS Academic measures learners’ readiness for university, higher education or professional registration in English-speaking countries. IELTS General is designed for individuals “wishing to migrate to an English-speaking country (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK), and for those wishing to train or study at below degree level.” Finally, IELTS Life Skills is a test approved by the UK government for people applying for a family visa, an extension to family, spouse or partner visa, indefinite leave to remain or citizenship.
Although used to assess proficiency and progress, TOEFL IPT, Cambridge English Placement Tests, LanguageCert Tests and IELTS are technically qualifying tests. “Those are to certify you are a level according to the CEFR,” Pizarro Navia said. “They are longer and more sophisticated, covering all four skills. These tests are high-stakes, qualifying test takers for university admissions, visas, etc.”
With the rising importance of multilingualism and English as a global language, more and more companies use testing in their recruitment process, often for career advancement purposes or to screen applicants for specific jobs requiring English proficiency. Tests used by employers may test all four skills or focus on certain skills relevant to a specific position or industry.
“Our main goal is to get our students independent and proficient no matter where they are.”
For example, for call centers or customer service jobs, testing may focus on speaking and comprehension proficiency, as communicating in English is usually required. Some industries such as medical or engineering may require tests customized to meet their needs, using industry-specific jargon and focusing on specific skills.
Bridge partners with companies from a variety of industries, providing language courses as part of company-sponsored language programs. “Our main goal is to get our students independent and proficient no matter where they are,” Pizarro Navia said. “Our teachers use progress tools within the classroom setting, and some of our corporate clients require a program test periodically. Some of our clients use tests like Linguaskill by Cambridge. We also use the Pearson option for Business students, which covers the four skills appropriate to the professional and business world.”
The Bridge program language assessment solutions also use Pearson’s Global Scale of English, which is aligned with the CEFR to interpret test results, identify areas of focus and create targeted lesson content.
Let’s explore some English proficiency tests available to companies.
Versant English Test by Pearson
Not to be confused with the Versant English Placement Test, the Versant English Test is an online test that measures learners’ ability to communicate in spoken English. The test is composed of six sections and takes a total of seventeen minutes to complete. According to the test creators, it measures overall ability, sentence mastery, vocabulary, fluency and pronunciation. This assessment is used by business organizations to screen the language skills of candidates during the hiring process and to determine the need for employees’ language training or for internal promotions and transfers.
Cambridge offers a three-level certificate for business professionals: Business Preliminary (BEC Preliminary) – CEFR level B1, Business Vantage (BEC Vantage) – CEFR B2 and Business Higher (BEC Higher) – CEFR C1. These tests are directed at people who want to work abroad, work with international organizations in their own country or study business-related subjects taught in English.
Test of English for International Communication “is the global leader in assessing English-communication skills for the workplace and everyday life.” It includes a listening and reading test, speaking and writing tests and the TOEIC Bridge test. The latter “measures all four English communication skills: listening, reading, speaking and writing. Institutions can use TOEIC Bridge scores for placement in the appropriate level class, discover areas in need of improvement, gauge the efficacy of a program and curriculum and finally, determine if an individual is academically or workplace ready.”
Cambridge’s Linguaskill test assesses all four language skills (speaking, listening, reading and writing) according to CEFR standards and can be administered anywhere and at any time. Results are delivered within 48 hours. AI auto-marking is used for the speaking and writing modules, and a Write & Improve tool gives instant feedback on students’ writing.
Linguaskill assessments are available in two formats and two options (General and Business). “Linguaskill can be used to help with hiring decisions, staff development and for setting language standards across a business,” Woodward said. “As Linguaskill is online, on-demand and offers remote invigilation, it can be easily set up and administered to staff anywhere in the world.”
Cambridge has also developed a tool to determine the language level required for specific positions. Linguaskill for education institutions is suitable for assessing students’ proficiency, identifying instruction gaps and providing students with the proper support. This modular test (each language skill corresponds to a module) allows for testing custom skill combinations.
Bright Language provides the Five Star Test, as well as individual modules that can assess language comprehension, writing proficiency and speaking and interacting. The Five Star Test is comprehensive, testing all skills. In addition to these tests, Bright Language provides tailored tests or tests designed for specific needs.
“We’ve developed technical tests for aerospace and the military sector (used by NATO) and we’re seeing more interest from the healthcare sector.”
Bright Language works with groups in Europe and the U.S., as well as other countries around the world, often partnering with financial institutes and the aerospace and military sectors as well as in energy and technology. “We’ve developed technical tests for aerospace and the military sector (used by NATO) and we’re seeing more interest from the healthcare sector,” said Cinthia Cristaldi, Business Development Consultant with Bright Languages.”
“Some companies require a specific level of English to move forward in careers or access higher positions.”
Many client requests are for recruitment, but increasingly, companies want to offer employees an English course or provide coursework through their Learning and Development initiatives.
“We also have companies that use our test to allow team members to apply for positions in different parts of the company or for different projects,” Cristaldi said. “Some companies require a specific level of English to move forward in careers or access higher positions. Some language levels are required “for specific positions, a change in salary or to earn a bonus.”
Proficiency tests used in recruitment are often considered an incentive to apply. “Candidates get the test, get a certificate, improve their level,” Cristaldi said. “They can then use that certificate to apply for other jobs even if they aren’t hired for the position.”
While the test company began with tests for businesses, they now often see requests from schools and universities as well. “In Canada, many people applying for universities apply for our test. It’s online so they can take it right away,” she said. “In Europe, they’re usually looking to study abroad or do an exchange. In America, it’s mostly international students applying to university.”
English proficiency testing is an integral part of English language teaching and a valuable tool for the increasingly globalized business world. Proficiency tests are essential to determine students’ readiness to take qualifying tests; they can measure learners’ progress, identify areas needing improvement and help educators draft appropriate study plans.
Companies use proficiency tests to make hiring decisions, to motivate employees for promotions, transfers, pay raises and bonuses, and as integral parts of L&D programs. Because of the multiplicity of options available, when selecting a test, it is important to have clear goals in mind and understand the features of each individual assessment to make an informed choice.