Assessing Language Proficiency

It might be helpful for you to know a little something about how the language proficiency of international students is assessed and the level that is typical of students at WOU. Of the several widely available standardized tests of language proficiency, two are the most frequently used—the TOFEL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and the IELTS (International English Language Testing System). At WOU a student can submit a “passing” score on either of these two to meet admissions requirements. The most current version of the  TOEFL will report a score on a scale of 0 to 120 with a Standard Error of Measurement (SEM) of 5.64 (link). IELTS scores are reported on a scale of 1 to 9 (at .5 increments) with an SEM of about .385 (link).

Though no standardized test is a perfect assessment of an individual ELL’s ability to understand and produce English, both of these tests employ a range of reading, writing, listening, and speaking items that have been continually revised over many years to achieve the most reliable and valid results that are possible for such large-scale tests. Of course, any student may perform slightly better or worse on different versions of one of these tests or on different days and many contextual and affective factors may compound this variation, but in my experience, the differences between a student who received a 5 on the IELTS (or equivalent on the TOEFL) and one who scored a 6.5 is readily observable in both conversation and writing. Likewise, in reviewing the Writing 115 grades for international students and their scores on the standardized language tests, there is a correlation between lower test scores and lower final grades. There will always be students whose standardized test scores do not reflect their actual language skills, but I believe that these mismatches are prominent not because they are extremely frequent (I don’t think they are), but because they are anomalous, making them more noticeable and memorable.

Admissions Standards

In order to apply for admission to WOU, students must submit a score of 5 or greater on the IELTS or at least 61 on the TOEFL. While these cut-off scores are lower than those at most universities, they are equivalent to the lowest cut-offs at a few other institutions. According to research by ETS (the TOEFL producer) a 61 on the TOEFL is equivalent to a low 6 on the IELTS ( Given this imbalance in the admissions requirements, it is not surprising that most students in the last several years have sought admission to WOU using the IELTS because it will be easier for them to achieve a 5 on the IELTS than a 61 on the TOEFL. In any case, both test makers caution against screening students solely on test scores, and both recommend that for university study, students should have higher scores than what most universities set as cut-offs for admission (link).

Using standardized language proficiency tests for admissions decisions is not controversial, but setting cut-off scores is, because each institution (and programs within them) can choose their own acceptable levels, and these levels have a direct impact on both the university’s recruiting, admissions, and enrollment on one hand, and the ability for students to adjust to life in the US and succeed academically on the other.