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Standardized English Tests Predictors of Academic Success?

Standardized external tests of English language proficiency such as TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and IELTS (International English Language Testing System) are widely accepted as a means of assessing the English proficiency of international students from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESBs). Although the score a student achieves in an external test is meant to indicate whether he/she has a sufficient level of English proficiency to cope with the linguistic demands of university studies, it does not mean that they will succeed academically or that they will not struggle linguistically. It is important for university administrators to have a clear understanding of the value of external tests in the assessment of a student’s linguistic ability and academic capabilities. This piece will consider issues around the efficacy of these tests as predictors of academic performance.
The research on this issue to date has been inconclusive. A large number of studies have attempted to identify positive relationships between English proficiency testing and GPA, focusing primarily on either IELTS or TOEFL scores. A number of predictive validity studies have sought to identify the connection between IELTS scores and academic performance, with inconsistent results. Some studies, have found positive, (although sometimes weak or inconsistent) correlations between IELTS entry levels and GPAs (Bellingham, 1993; Hill, Storch& Lynch, 1999; Kerstjens & Neary, 2000; and Feast 2002). Other studies have found no link between the two (for example Cotton & Conrow, 1998; Dooey 1999; Dooey & Oliver, 2002; Green, 2007; and Picard, 2007).
Picard’s (2007) study on IELTS scores and post-graduate research student results, for example, revealed that:
“…IELTS scores are inadequate to provide a complete picture of post-graduate research students’ English proficiency or likely academic success”.
There have also been several studies finding a positive relationship between TOEFL scores and academic achievement with GPA used as a proxy. There have also been studies implying that TOEFL scores might not be a good predictor for international students’ academic success (Krausz et al., 2005; Xu, 1991, Sadeghi, 2014). The findings of a study conducted by Krausz et al., (2005), for example, showed that TOEFL scores were not associated with the academic performance of international graduate students majoring in accounting.
Another recent study reported results of a meta-analysis of 22 studies on the relationship between English language proficiency and academic achievement of international students in U.S. institutions of higher education (Wongtrirat, 2010). The studies reviewed were conducted between 1987 and 2009 using TOEFL score as a measure of English proficiency, and GPA and course completion as measures for academic performance. Based on the results of the meta-analysis, it was concluded that:
“TOEFL has a small predictive ability on the academic achievement of international students whether measured by GPA or the course completion” (Wongtrirat, 2010, p. 45).
Overall, the review of existing literature in relation to international students’ academic performance and English proficiency show that the majority of studies that the relationship between English proficiency testing (proxied by IELTS or TOEFL) and academic performance (usually measured by GPA) are inconclusive with some studies revealing no correlation while others indicated some degree of positive correlation. This implies that English proficiency measured solely by TOEFL or IELTS scores cannot be a reliable predictor of students’ academic success. Moreover, Fox (2004) noted that language tests do not measure other factors such as social networks of support, financial security, time availability for study abroad, acculturation, and academic adjustment that might impact international students’ academic performance significantly. Other researchers also indicated other contributing factors such as inadequate background knowledge, poor study skills, ESL support, difficulty of course work, differences in language demands for different courses, motivation, maturity, and previous experiences (see, Daller & Phelan, 2013; Drennan & Rohde, 2002; Hill et al., 1999; Huong, 2001; Kerstijens & Nery, 2000; Light et al., 1987, and Woodrow, 2006). Therefore, there are additional variables that might predict international students’ academic success other than linguistic ability.
A number of researchers have recommended that international students undertake courses in language development to improve their English language proficiency rather than focus on highly specialized test preparation courses. Recent research by Sadeghi (2014) concludes that tailoring a course to meet testing requirements impedes students’ needs for language development and the learning of academic skills. This is supported by Green (2007) whose study shows that narrow test preparation (‘teaching-to-the-test’) is less effective in developing improvements in English language ability. He contends that general English for Academic Purposes (EAP) courses train students to handle a wider range of tasks than IELTS preparation courses. For example, in EAP course students learn about the issue of academic integrity and also how to reference appropriately and compile a bibliography. As Green cautions, “An IELTS band score at a given level does not imply that they (students) have nothing further to learn about academic writing in English” (p. 87).
The matter of graduate attributes and outcomes is also not adequately addressed by standardized English tests. Universities now expect now expect graduates to be able to “critically review and interpret information”, “to demonstrate and apply theoretical knowledge”, and “to exhibit cross cultural understanding and communication skills”. Students are expected demonstrate these graduate attributes in their written and oral communication. These types of attributes translate into the tasks that students are to perform during their studies which usually include writing research essays, analyzing academic journal articles, presenting seminars, and participating in tutorials. There is a vast difference between the skills required for successful higher education study and the generic skills tested in the IELTS academic speaking and writing tasks. The differences in task-types and competencies between disciplines are even greater. To meet the requirements set by the institution, it is contended that study programs that develop these skills and capabilities are much more effective than looking at IELTS scores.
The overall results of this analysis of the research are that there is insufficient evidence for the validity of standardized English tests as a predictor of academic success. Language is but one of many important contributing factors. There is a mounting body of evidence to support international students undertaking pathway programs such as EAP courses or Foundation Studies programs to ensure academic success based on continuing linguistic acquisition and development of academic skills and strategies.
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