One year after mandating that international graduate students take supplemental tests in spoken and written “academic English,” the University of Alabama at Birmingham has found that only a handful -- 5 to 6 percent – are entering at the level deemed necessary to meet graduate school demands. Students at this high level, for instance, don't require any more support in writing than the average native speaker would, and can participate effectively in "extended discussion of abstract concepts" and professional and scholarly discourse more generally.
“It’s not an ESL test per se. We’re looking at academic skill,” explained Nancy G. Abney, program manager for the UAB Graduate School’s Professional Development Program. “They need to be able to participate in scholarly discussions, to be able to defend their arguments, explain their opinions, develop hypotheses, all of the things they need to write and defend their dissertation.”
Beyond the top 5 percent, the university found that on the writing and speaking assessments, respectively, 44 and 47 percent of international students score at level three on the four-level classification system (four being the highest) -- with sufficient English skills that they could potentially be considered fluent in the language but without the adequate skills to excel at high-level academic work, Abney said. “They could basically meet the demands of a job. They can carry on a conversation pretty easily. They can be understood by native speakers. But they can’t do that kind of high-level critical analysis that we expect of graduate students.”
The rest of the students -- about half -- score at level two, meaning they need "long-term, extensive language support." A score of one (novice) would be extremely rare among international students, Abney said.
Abney has coordinated research on the testing of about 250 UAB international graduate students and post-docs since 2006, including many who were assessed following the addition of a graduate school-wide requirement in fall 2007 stipulating that all students required to submit Test of English as a Foreign Language  (TOEFL) scores also must complete the university's new oral and written assessments. All those tested would have earned sufficiently high TOEFL scores to gain admission in the first place, although Abney said minimum scores vary by department.
UAB’s speaking test, developed in partnership with Emory University, is "loosely based" on the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages' Oral Proficiency Interview , and focuses on discussions of a student’s scholarly pursuits. (“We will ask about their field, about their topic, about advancements in their field...what they hope their work here can do,” Abney said.) The one-hour writing test, based on criteria from several other tests, including the TOEFL, is structured very much like the Graduate Record Examination 's writing assessment, Abney said, in which students write one essay stating a view and supporting an opinion. (“We’re not looking so much at the content of what their opinion is as the content of their language use, how they are able to structure their argument, what kinds of examples are they able to pull from. And then their language, their facility with using the language, syntax, grammar, all that.”)
Based on their scores, the graduate school recommends – but does not require – that students enroll in specific academic writing and speaking courses offered through the UAB Graduate School's Professional Development Program .
Only about 50 percent of UAB students have followed up on the recommendations, despite the fact that tuition their first year is typically paid by institutional resources and so the cost of courses would be covered, as the graduate school's dean explained. In the second year and beyond, many students receive their tuition support from grants -- complicating the decision to take extra classes -- although the graduate school has committed some resources to match departments willing to pay for any further academic support coursework needed.
“We’d like them to take advantage of what we have available, in order to bring their skill level really up to the equivalent, to the extent possible, of our native English speakers, so that a potential problem with English language skills does not become an academic problem,” said Bryan D. Noe, UAB’s dean of the graduate school. “For numerous reasons, anyone who’s been going to Council of Graduate Schools  meetings for years understands that the TOEFL score is not necessarily an adequate predictor of English language proficiency when they arrive.”
Supplemental English language testing systems like UAB’s are not unique at the graduate school level, especially when it comes to assessing international teaching assistants, said Eileen Tyson, director of client relations for the TOEFL program at the Educational Testing Service. ETS released a new TOEFL Internet-based test  in 2005.
Tyson pointed out that there can be a two-year-or-more lag between when students take the TOEFL and when they arrive on campus. She further described setting minimum TOEFL scores as an art: generally an art of keeping doors open to the maximum number of students while screening out those unable to benefit from a university program, even with extra help. “Obviously a university must be setting its TOEFL score requirement at a level to know a student is good enough so if they arrive, [and] they still need extra help, they’re at a high enough level they’re going to benefit from that specialized course and then go on to graduate courses.”
“The tests that universities create related to English proficiency really are geared to meet their specific needs," Tyson continued.
Kansas State University, for instance, must, under a Board of Regents mandate, test all teaching assistants and faculty in spoken English. In addition, the graduate school has a long-standing internal policy of administering a written English Proficiency Test  to all international students who fall in the bottom of the range of accepted TOEFL scores. For instance, an international student who receives between a 550 and a 600 on the paper-based TOEFL can be accepted provisionally, with admission based upon successful completion of Kansas State's test during orientation, explained Carol W. Shanklin, the interim dean of the graduate school.
Students who do not successfully complete the test generally must take academic support coursework in English before beginning their regular graduate study (case-by-case waivers are available), Shanklin said.
"When I talk with students, sometimes they don't really understand the intent of this. They feel like we're really delaying them from moving forward," said Shanklin, who added that she meets with students one-on-one. She said she tries to explain to them that, "We're not trying to put roadblocks in your way, but we're really trying to have a program that will help you be successful."
UAB’s Abney said that, in the past, international students have often tried to take available academic communication courses too late – as they were starting their dissertations, for instance. “When I have a student in his fifth year in his Ph.D. program who says to me 'I want to be faculty' and I see that in one semester he cannot develop the speaking skills that he needs in order to teach in an American university, I’m very disappointed," she said.
“We feel like students deserve to know [their relative skill level] coming in. They have passed these kinds of baseline tests [the TOEFL and GRE], they’ve met what has been required of them and they are often unaware that they will have any difficulty when they come. They’ve studied English for a long, long time. They’re very accomplished individuals; they’re brilliant scientists. So they and their departments are often surprised when they have problems, when they struggle.”