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New Challenge to TOEFL

October 2, 2008

The publishing giant Pearson is entering an important and lucrative part of the educational testing field -- English proficiency for foreign students -- by offering an exam that will be significantly different from current models. Most significantly, the Pearson Test of English will provide institutions not only with scores of applicants, but with a digital recording that will allow institutions to determine whether they are comfortable with the proficiency of the test taker. While existing tests include speaking, the results are scored and admissions offices don't actually hear the applicant.

For many years, the dominant test of English used by non-native speakers to gain admission to colleges in the United States has been the Test of English as a Foreign Language, which is run by the Educational Testing Service. TOEFL already has growing competition in the United States from the International English Language Testing System, known as IELTS. Both tests are administered about 1 million times annually. Although IELTS is most popular in the countries of the British Commonwealth, it is also accepted by an increasing number of American colleges and universities.

Taking on two established competitors might seem difficult, but Pearson is entering with several advantages. It has deep pockets, a worldwide network and -- in the United States -- it is working with the Graduate Management Admission Council, an organization that represents M.B.A. programs and that is strongly endorsing the use of the new test and helped to develop it.

In 2006, the council moved the GMAT, the primary admissions test for M.B.A. programs, from ETS to Pearson, and the ties between the business schools and Pearson have since grown. While business school interest is expected to provide early adopters for the new test, the Pearson exam is a general test of the level of English needed in higher education, not a business-focused exam. Pearson plans to market it broadly as an alternative to both TOEFL and IELTS.

While Pearson has yet to do a major public launch of the test, it has conducted extensive field testing -- enough so that the business school association recently decided to publicize the availability of the test in October 2009, to be used for admitting the class that would enroll in the fall of 2010.

Mark Anderson, president of Pearson Language Tests, said in an interview that within five years, the Pearson Test of English would be as well known as either TOEFL or IELTS. But Eileen Tyson, director of client relations for the global division of ETS, said she was skeptical. "We don't see that Pearson is bringing anything new," she said.

For students from non-English speaking countries who want to enroll in college in English-speaking nations, TOEFL and IELTS are crucial. Most colleges and universities will not admit students -- however brilliant -- without what the institutions consider acceptable performance on one of the exams. And in many fields in which foreign students play a key role as teaching assistants, TOEFL or IELTS are effectively the way colleges screen for English proficiency there as well.

David A. Wilson, president of GMAC, said that his organization's interest in a new test came about because many business school have found TOEFL unreliable on speaking ability. "It's a complaint we hear time and again. Candidates do very well on the written examinations, but they aren't prepared to engage in dialogue in the classroom," Wilson said.

So much of the M.B.A. curriculum involves either classroom discussion or group work that it has become a serious problem that business educators lack confidence in whether TOEFL results tell them everything they need to know. Currently, about 30 percent of students at business schools in the United States are from countries where English is not the primary language. In addition, he noted, much of the growth in M.B.A. programs is in English-language programs outside the United States, so that is also a significant market for a new test. (This year, for the first time, he said, more GMAT reports were sent outside the United States than to institutions in the U.S.)

Wilson said that some business schools have already indicated that they will accept the new exam and that he expects many will do by the time the test official debuts.

"The M.B.A. classroom is about discussion," he said. "What's really exciting and different is that we'll be able to get a sense of the command of the language and the ability to speak."

Pearson's Anderson said that in planning the new test, the recording was viewed as key by admissions officers. The recording will not be reading, but will be of the candidate responding to a prompt requiring analytic thought and explanation -- something comparable to what a student might experience in a classroom.

"It's very clear that admissions departments see a value in hearing speech," he said. While the Pearson test will also have scores, admissions offices can decide for themselves what they think of an applicant's speaking ability. He noted that some admissions officers now will call applicants for the same reason, but that the test would be more consistent.

Tyson, of ETS, questioned whether the judgments of these recordings would add much. She noted that TOEFL has a speaking test, which is scored by professionals who are trained to do so. "I'm not sure an average person would have the same level of knowing how to evaluate a spoken response as opposed to someone who has been trained," she said.

But Anderson said that wasn't an issue. "I don't think you need training," he said, to determine whether someone talking can communicate effectively.

Generally, Anderson said, the new Pearson test, like its competitors, will cover reading, writing, listening and speaking. And he stressed that it would feature "international English," such that some passages or audio might feature the accents one might find in Illinois and others would feature those one would find in London. It is not being designed with an assumption that students are necessarily headed for one country or another. An FAQ prepared by Pearson on the new test may be found here.

On pricing, all Pearson will say for now is that it will be competitive. Pricing has been a controversial issue because students taking these tests come from countries with widely varying economies. Until 2006, TOEFL had a flat rate and some admissions officers who started to support IELTS did so because of its sliding scale of fees. Now TOEFL fees show variation, with a basic test costing $185 in Germany and $155 in Guatemala, for example. While Anderson declined to discuss specifics about pricing, he said that Pearson would be "broadly competitive and that means being broadly competitive wherever the test is offered," and that the company has no plans for "a single international price."

Tyson of ETS said that based on what she has heard about the Pearson exam, "We're still convinced that TOEFL is more authentic about what goes on in the classroom." She stressed that a big part of TOEFL today is "integrative knowledge" in which questions are based on both listening and reading material and then responding to it. "We have very rigorous, sophisticated test questions."

Before ETS introduced its speaking test in 2005, she said some officials pushed for some way to measure how would-be students actually communicate. But she said that when ETS presented the test to business school officials, they said, "This is what we want."

On one topic, the representatives of Pearson and ETS agreed: The market of people from all over the world who want to enroll at an English-speaking college is only going to increase.

 

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