The link between language proficiency requirements and diversity

“Lower score requirements may be acceptable if sufficient English language support is offered”

Diversity is a core value of higher education institutions, and consequently an important consideration for admissions decisions colleges and universities make every year.

While international applicants can help achieve diversity goals, institutions need to decide whether such applicants can cope with the language demands of instruction delivered in English.

This decision is not straightforward because, although English-language proficiency is a key element for academic success, other factors including subject-related knowledge and non-cognitive attributes play a role in future academic performance.

Because of the complex nature of academic language proficiency, requirements for English-language proficiency test scores are essential to the admission process for international students.

Before setting score requirements, two important prerequisites should be met. First, the English language proficiency test used for admission should be designed to support decisions about academic language proficiency.

If a language test does not contain tasks representative of real-life academic language, but rather includes inauthentic tasks evaluating rudimentary English language skills, then test scores should not be viewed as evidence of academic language proficiency.

Second, research evidence is critical to demonstrate that test scores are useful for admissions decisions. Test providers should collect evidence through a rigorous research program to support any claim they make about the use of a test and the interpretation of its scores.

Even if the same test of academic English language is used, score requirements are likely to differ across institutions because of various contextual characteristics, such as language demands of the instruction and amount of language support offered to international students.

Regardless of an institution’s current score requirements, there are research-backed ways colleges and universities should approach setting score requirements:

Impact of scores: Evaluate the consequences of score requirements that are too high or too low. Stringent score requirements, or scores that are too high, increase the likelihood of rejecting students who could be successful.

On the other hand, lenient score requirements, or scores that are too low, increase the likelihood of selecting students who may need substantial language training or support to be successful.

Program demands: Consider the English language demands of your institution’s various academic programs and departments. Score requirements should be higher when language demands for international students are high.

Lower score requirements may be acceptable if sufficient English language support is offered to students on campus.

Consider other factors: For students whose language proficiency scores are within a few points of your institution’s required scores, consider all relevant information about English language proficiency when evaluating their application.

For example, previous work or study experience in an English-speaking context or samples of spoken or written test performance provided by the test provider could prove to be helpful evidence that the applicant can, in fact, handle the demands of work within the academic setting.

Look at the big picture: Apply score requirements for both the total test score (related to overall language proficiency), and the test section score (related to the individual language skills), so that decisions about language proficiency are based on a comprehensive picture of the individual’s language ability.

Review requirements: Review score requirements regularly, consider whether the quality of the evaluation you are using meets your needs, and adjust accordingly.

It is critical that language proficiency test scores can be trusted so that score requirements are useful when making important decisions about students’ academic future.

But before even embarking on an effort to set score requirements on a language proficiency test, institutions seeking to recruit international students should first seek answers to two questions:

Does the language proficiency test evaluate relevant language skills and abilities?

Is there is strong empirical evidence of the usefulness of the test scores for decision-making?

Unless the answer to both questions is an emphatic “yes”, then there is little value in trying to set score requirements using this approach because the test scores are unlikely to support decisions about whether an international student can cope with the demands of English-language instruction.

About the authors: Spiros Papageorgiou is a managing senior research scientist at ETS. He holds a PhD in Linguistics from Lancaster University and has been researching various topics on the assessment of English as a foreign language (EFL) for over a decade.

Jonathan Schmidgall is a research scientist at ETS. He received a PhD in applied linguistics from the University of California – Los Angeles and focuses on language assessment issues related to international teaching assistants and the international workplace.