Digital English tests “key” to diversity

Published 27/04/2023

It would be easy to assume that the pandemic had advanced the acceptance of digital language tests for university admission in the UK. However, many in the higher education sector have yet to update their policy on digital English testing, it was said on a panel at a recent stakeholder event in Leeds.

While universities are able to decide which English language tests they will accept for undergraduate level study or higher, many still defer to the UKVI’s list of secure English language tests known as SELTs.

The list is only fully audited every four to five years and isn’t necessarily keeping pace with the full range of digital testing options.

Stakeholders from admissions, recruitment and assessment discussed the issue in consultation with The PIE and Duolingo at the event on April 17.

Tamsin Thomas, senior strategic engagement manager at Duolingo is familiar with this scenario and the irony that while the majority of UK universities accepted digital tests during Covid, many have since reverted back to their pre-Covid policies for ‘normal’ times.

“A lot of UK universities put tons of investment into digitising their practices to survive,” explained Thomas.

“You’ve [also] got the ones who are rushing to get back to how things were and the ones who have seen this as an opportunity to progress.

“If you work in international student education, you’re working in an incredibly volatile industry, it always has been and it’s getting worse [through global geo-political events]. I think a crisis like Covid was a real hallmark that universities have to manage that volatility as if it were normal in their processes,” continued Thomas.

Further validity studies of digital test takers’ academic performance are being requested by the sector, but a recent Sage study by UCL into Duolingo acknowledged that wider factors like student nationality, academic subject and mode of learning will have also impacted on performance.

“People are more digitally literate now”

Stakeholders at the event pointed out that students, particularly from emerging markets who are attracted by affordable fees, are in fact being disadvantaged through lack of accessible testing.

“In-person testing comes with a range of disadvantages that can harm universities’ attempts to recruit diversity”, explained Ben Naismith, an assessment scientist for the Duolingo English Test.

“People are more digitally literate now.

“It’s useful to have tasks that reflect the modern target language use domain and the way they’re going to be studying at university or digitally working in the future. I think it’s sort of inevitable that we’re moving in that direction, even if there is some resistance,” Naismith added.

Digital English exam acceptance also varies by study destination, with the majority of US universities and colleges accepting the Duolingo English Test.

A rise in multi-destination applications from international schools and agents means that universally accepted tests will increasingly be favoured by students.

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