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February 14, 2005

Language Testing Options Available
For International Teaching Assistants

New, more accurate tests to screen international students for English proficiency will make it easier for departments to make decisions about hiring them as teaching assistants.

“All international teaching assistants at the University must demonstrate proficiency in spoken English before they are can be assigned a TA position,” says Catherine Ross, associate director of the Institute for Teaching and Learning.

For many years, the Graduate School has required prospective international graduate students to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) for admission. Students take the TOEFL in their home countries and scores are sent to the Graduate School and the department, Ross says.

But the test doesn’t tell the University everything it needs to know.

Students receive only one score on the test, which evaluates reading, listening, grammar, and vocabulary. “It’s a passive language test,” Ross says. “Someone could get the highest score possible on the test and not be able to functionally communicate in spoken English, or understand what people are saying. But for a long time, it has been the only test available for admissions.”

In the past year, Ross learned about another test – now accepted by the Graduate School – that offers writing and speaking components: The International English Language Testing System (IELTS). In addition to an overall score, IELTS offers separate scores in listening, reading, writing, and speaking.

“The IELTS tests what we need to know: a student’s ability to speak and write, not just memorize vocabulary,” she says.

“A department can look at a candidate’s score on this test and make a decision right away about whether that person should be offered a teaching assistantship,” Ross says. Some departments even state on their websites that people who are applying for teaching assistantships should take IELTS, and that preference will be given to those who take it. “If departments need to know up front whether a particular person can teach right away, they should advise the applicant to take this test.”

The primary method for screening the English proficiency of international teaching assistants once they get to the University is the PhonePass Test. The 10-minute test, administered by computer over the telephone, measures speaking and listening skills. The test, scored automatically, measures fluency, pronunciation, vocabulary, and sentence mastery. “It’s a much more efficient way of testing students than what we had in the past,” Ross says.

The last part of the test includes three open-ended questions. Examinees have 20 seconds to answer each question. “An example might be, ‘Do you think families ought to eat meals together?’ says Ross. The answers are recorded and made available on the company’s website. The recorded responses are made available only to the purchaser of the test and are password-protected.

“Within 15 minutes, I can access the person’s overall score on the test, as well as listen to the responses to the last three questions on the test. I can then call departments immediately to tell them who is suitable for teaching and who is not. With the older tests, it would take weeks to get departments that information.”

If students do not pass the PhonePass test, they have to take an English class, Ross says. If their scores are in the borderline range, they are required to take what is called a “microteaching” test. This test includes giving an eight-minute presentation to an audience of undergraduates, English as a Second Language evaluators, and departments. Evaluations are collected and reviewed to see whether the person is comprehensible.

Ross says that if departments want to screen potential students, they can take advantage of a new service being offered by her office: She can have PhonePass tests e-mailed as a PDF file to the students, wherever they are. The students can then take the test from their home telephones. Ross will get their scores and verbal responses and send a report to the department. The cost for the service is $50, to be paid either by the department or by the student.

“It gives the department something to go on,” says Ross. “It’s a great prescreening service.”