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English Test Providers Jockey for Position as Pandemic Accelerates Online Trend

A student poses with the results of his IELTS English language test.

Luis von Ahn, the co-founder and CEO of Duolingo, had to travel to the neighboring country of El Salvador to sit his English language proficiency exam for a U.S. college when his native Guatemala literally had no testing center seats left for students.

Fast forward several years and Duolingo is now among the leading online English test providers in offering purely online testing that can be taken from the comfort of one’s own home, no testing centers needed. In turn, that is raising questions for both teachers and students as to which tests to choose and how to prepare for them, as testing options expand.

Such a business model has now taken on an even greater significance given the direct effects on the industry of the COVID-19 pandemic, with large numbers of traditional testing centers remaining closed across the globe. In turn, expanded testing options raise questions for both teachers and students as to which tests to choose and how to prepare for them.

Established test leaders like IELTS (International English Language Testing System) and ETS (Educational Testing Service), already seeing market share challenged by relative newcomers such as Duolingo before the pandemic, have had to adapt by offering their own online test versions that can also be taken from a student’s living room.

“I think the days of sitting in a testing room are numbered, especially now.”

And they have. The IELTS Indicator and the ETS-run TOEFL iBT (the internet-based Test of English as a Foreign Language) Home Edition are now established offerings in the portfolio of testing products for these recognized leaders in the industry.

As test providers adapt to the pandemic and its effects on each of their business models, it seems almost certain that online offerings, especially those that can be taken from home, for example, are here to stay.

“I think the days of sitting in a testing room are numbered, especially now,” said Leah Donelson, a TEFL course tutor, content developer, and online teacher who works both for Denver-based Bridge and as an online teacher trainer. “I welcome the new players and I like to have the options for my students.”

Big Players Weigh in Online

Srikant Gopal, executive director of the ETS TOEFL program, agreed that online English test providers are here to stay. The TOEFL iBT Home Edition product was launched March 23, he said, and has proven popular with students as they found themselves unable to take tests in more traditional, in-person settings.

ETS had been researching the online testing space before the advent of COVID-19 but there was a “dramatic increase” in such focus once the pandemic hit home and testing centers in China, in particular, shut down, Gopal said.

“I am not surprised it has been a success but I am a little surprised by the degree of popularity it has had,” he adds, saying over half of the students taking the test now prefer the online home edition compared even to taking online tests in in-person language testing centers. “It is a long-term part of the portfolio now.”

“I am not surprised it has been a success but I am a little surprised by the degree of popularity it has had. It is a long-term part of the portfolio now.”

The IELTS Indicator was similarly launched in the spring and, like the TOEFL iBT Home Edition, has the same structure and content as each of the traditional, written tests.

IELTS, though, makes it clear that the focus remains largely on getting in-person testing centers up and running when it is safe to do so, following health authority protocols such as those recommended by Centers for Disease Control in the U.S.

The company’s website says the newly available Indicator test is “designed to support you during the COVID-19 situation” and warns some institutions may still want students to take an in-person IELTS test even with a successful IELTS Indicator score. The website also says the test is available for a “limited time while IELTS testing is currently suspended due to COVID-19.”

The availability of the Indicator test has been “instrumental at a time like this,” Ariel Foster, IELTS USA CEO and Executive Director, wrote in an email. “Having a range of testing options for test-takers is, and will continue to be, a strength of IELTS,” she added.

Pros and Cons

There are doubtless some limitations in both the IELTS and the ETS TOEFL home tests, in terms of flexibility.

For example, the TOEFL option is strictly available Sunday to Wednesday each week but can, however, be taken at any time of the day, making it attractive to people in different time zones. The IELTS Indicator is held once a week at a scheduled time. The Duolingo English Test is, by contrast, available to individual students on-demand, as is the range of California-based iTEP International (International Test of English Proficiency) offerings, including iTEP Academic.

The Duolingo and iTEP tests also have apparent advantages in such areas as cost and the expected turnaround in results.

While IELTS Indicator results are available within a week, and the TOEFL iBT Home Edition scores appear in a student’s registered ETS account between six and ten days after the test, Duolingo gets results to students in 48 hours, which is perhaps a benefit in terms of planning purposes for teachers and students. The Duolingo test also costs only $49 compared to a more typical $200+ for the more traditional certification tests. For instance, iTEP Academic costs $129 and results are available within 24 hours.

A student taking the online English language test by Duolingo.

A look inside the online Duolingo English Test. (Photo Credit: Duolingo)

However, Duolingo and other, newer online English test providers are just that, newer. They face stiff competition when attempting to make inroads into the market share of historically dominant English language tests like IELTS and TOEFL, certainly in academic settings.

For example, Duolingo tests are currently accepted by approximately 3,000 institutions, but those institutions are still largely in North America, especially the U.S.

TOEFL remains available in 175 countries around the world and “almost every single university” that accepts TOEFL, approximately 11,000 worldwide, also recognizes the iBT Home Edition, Gopal at ETS said. IELTS, while recognizing its own Indicator brand still may have a way to go towards universal acceptance by institutions, is recognized as a global leader in the language testing world, with acceptance from more than 10,000 education providers worldwide.

“What is lacking from the newer providers is the branding and the reputation even when they are accepted at many institutions,” said Bridge’s Donelson.

Duolingo, for its part, knows there is a lot more work to be done, according to Jennifer Dewar, Director of Strategic Engagement for the Duolingo Test, not least in its more limited geographic footprint.

The focus remains very much on building the Duolingo brand internally and not worrying too much about other language test providers, especially during the pandemic.

“I am happy others have released online tests as this was the direction it was going in,” Dewar said. “COVID accelerated that.”

Technology and Humans

ETS, like IELTS, was providing in-person language tests long before the explosion of technology development. Still, the company uses aspects of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in its TOEFL iBT Home Edition online version.

Such AI complements the work of human proctors who are present, virtually at least, in every Home Edition test, Gopal at ETS said. ETS has partnered with California- and Alabama-based online company, ProctorU, to add to the security of its testing procedures.

“AI should assist human experts and not replace them. Technology plays a role but should not be the starting point.”

“We have state of the art AI features built in to help the proctors,” Gopal said. “AI is keeping a watch on the test-takers too; the system is built to catch any cheaters.”

That opinion was echoed by Perry Akins, chairman of iTEP International.

“The primary barrier in the past to online testing at sites other than secure ones was the security issue,” Akins said.  “Now, there are AI programs that can be embedded into online testing that will ensure a secure test experience.”

While technology, including AI, has many benefits, the human element will, however, remain integral to language testing, Gopal at ETS argued. AI, for example, cannot necessarily determine intent and context.

In some ways, the online test is actually more secure in that any single, virtually present human proctor is observing fewer test-takers than in a more traditional classroom setting, he said. But that also points to the necessity of human presence in any language testing scenario.

“AI should assist human experts and not replace them,” Gopal said. “Technology plays a role but should not be the starting point.”

The use of AI in language testing is understandable given that it has the potential to significantly reduce costs by lessening the importance of purely human processes, said Foster at IELTS.

But questions remain as to both what she called the “intended and unintended” consequences of using AI when the global population taking language tests is so diverse. IELTS serves individuals from over 140 countries with native proficiency in hundreds of languages and dialects resulting in a complex perspective of how English is learned across the world, Foster stressed.

“Right now, we’re concerned about what may not reliably be assessed using AI, where those edges are, who gets left out, and who makes the decision,” she added.

Student and Future Career Needs 

Student demand and preferences are ultimately the main drivers behind which kind of test formats or which test brands prove popular in academic settings. Above all, as Dewar at Duolingo points out, students want to take tests that are accepted by institutions.

“Despite the emergence of online testing, many test-takers still prefer taking a test in a test center environment for a variety of reasons, so we want to give them a choice of their preferred delivery method.”

That said, the student body is incredibly varied across the world, as Foster at IELTS stressed. What works for one individual in a certain culture could be very different for another in a different one in terms of what language testing format and brand are most relevant.

“Despite the emergence of online testing, many test-takers still prefer taking a test in a test center environment for a variety of reasons, so we want to give them a choice of their preferred delivery method,” Foster added.

Such a claim that test centers will remain a major focus for students is not necessarily agreed on by other sources more focused on purely online offerings.

“For those exams that were not Internet-based prior to the pandemic, they would be experiencing many challenges to be able to offer secure tests over the Internet,” said Akins at iTEP International.

Certainly, the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a much higher focus on and shift toward online testing options, said Gopal at ETS.

“We have to be customer-focused; we wanted to keep students on their journey,” he said. “We are talking about someone’s future life and career here and we have to use technology to facilitate that.”

It was important also to convince institutions that such online offerings didn’t mean any slide in the quality of testing this year, he said. The data so far shows integrity has been kept intact as proven by the number of institutions accepting the TOEFL iBT Home Edition.

“When we look at the scores comparing the home test and the traditional one, there really is no real difference,” Gopal added.

The career side of things Gopal references is now, indeed, a major focus of Utah-based online language assessment provider, Emmersion.

The company, whose Internet domain, emmersion.ai, speaks to its technology focus, uses AI in such assessments to help both non-native English-speaking professionals and potential employers at the initial hiring stage and potentially through the period an employee stays with a certain company. It uses the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) guidelines to help with its assessments.

Emmersion, which also works with some education providers and traces its origins back to the field of higher education, believes it is offering a service differing from the likes of IELTS and ETS, as well as similar, purely online testing providers like Duolingo. iTEP, for its part, also offers professional testing proficiency outside of academics with such products as iTEP Business.

“We recognized with this domain of language testing a previously uncaptured and unaddressed need,” said Judson Hart, a former English language instructor himself and Emmersion’s Director of Language Assessment. “We get there is space at the table and that we don’t have to necessarily fight over the same piece of pie.” 

Testing Pressures

Whatever formats are eventually chosen by students looking to enter universities, even in an unidentified future when the pandemic is no longer such a global threat, there could be one factor that unites individuals when it comes to language testing – anxiety overtaking such an exam.

That anxiety could be well on its way to being reduced, by offering an online test taken in the comfort of one’s home, Donelson at Bridge said. And a shorter length test could also be attractive to some students, she added.

“The established tests can be a big and scary thing,” she said. “An online option can feel more tangible and make students feel they have more control over their test decision.”

Duolingo’s Dewar made a similar point, having worked in university admissions for much of her career before switching to the technology focus of her current company.

“What drove me was that I could see that language tests were not serving hundreds of students well in my university career,” she said, adding that having the technological advances of a cellphone in an individual’s hand didn’t always jibe with the human intervention necessitated by having in-person language tests.

And that speaks to Duolingo’s aim, she added, of breaking down barriers in gaining access to opportunities that may otherwise be unattainable, something that Judson at Emmersion, whose language assessments can be done on a cellphone or a tablet echoes.

“Sometimes a language test can be an extra step and present additional barriers – some of these tests are systems unto themselves and can erect a filtering system that can affect motivations for individual learning,” he said. “Our aim is to democratize [them] by making things more scalable, reliable, and equitable.”

As an example, he points to experiences gained working with a high school in rural Guatemala, where English language learning and assessment is targeted specifically to a call center in the same area. This call center also offers employment to the school’s graduates, thereby offering a work opportunity that may otherwise not have been available. 

Uncertainty Characterizes Paths Forward

What is certain is that the COVID-19 pandemic has both caused and exacerbated the vast amounts of uncertainty in language testing provision.

Dominant providers like IELTS and ETS have had to adapt their traditional business models and they continue to face uncertainty as to when testing centers may open again on a wider basis.

The more technology-based companies have also had to adapt to the pandemic. Emmersion, for example, experienced a temporary decline in employer use of its assessment tools in the short-term as hiring was generally cut back in the earlier months of the global disease.

All companies in the space, though, have used this uncertain period to gather increasing amounts of data as to what both works well and what is less efficient in the current climate and perhaps going forward once the pandemic becomes less dominant.

“There are certainly advantages to the test-taker if he/she can experience a sample of the test to be taken. And, there are those test-takers who absolutely will not take a test without spending a rather large sum of money on a preparation course.” 

Such data gathering is generally welcomed by Akins at iTEP International, which launched its online iTEP Academic test in 2008. Whether that is filtering down to teachers and students may be another question, he added, especially for busy teachers who often do not have the time to delve deeply into test preparation.

“The best way to evaluate a test of interest is to administer it over time with the students while collecting and analyzing the data,” he said. “Testing companies should be willing to provide teachers with a sufficient quantity of exams at no charge, for a trial run.”

A student speaking with the receptionist about the IELTS test prep course at Bridge in Denver, CO.

Test prep courses are in high-demand by English language learners.

Test preparation remains an in-demand and lucrative field for teachers, however, and newer teachers, especially, would be wise to develop their professional portfolio by getting credentialed in such prep courses.

For example, Bridge itself offers a 20-hour micro-credential course in Teaching IELTS Exam Prep where teachers can learn how to weave student readiness for the exam itself into their lesson plans.

While the best way to prepare for such tests is simply to study English itself, Akins at iTEP claimed, he did concede that there is always a market involving students who want to prepare for their language exams by taking a prep course taught by credentialed teachers. “There are certainly advantages to the test-taker if he/she can experience a sample of the test to be taken,” he said. “And, there are those test-takers who absolutely will not take a test without spending a rather large sum of money on a preparation course.” 

Find out how you can start teaching IELTS exam prep.

But Traditional Centers Face Existential Threat

Regardless of how the various challenges of adapting to a global pandemic amid an already increasing focus on online testing eventually pan out, it does appear certain that the days of holding language tests in-person at a secure center, even those that are still offering an online test within such a center, are disappearing.

“Online testing is here to stay and will be growing in the months and years to come,” Akins at iTEP said. “COVID-19 has made fixed, secure test sites relatively obsolete.”

Such thoughts were echoed by Dewar at Duolingo.

“It was a common experience for international students to lose their ability to take in-person tests,” she said. “Now there is no such thing as running out of seats.”

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