The TOEFL, once the only exam testing English proficiency, now has competition in the IELTS.
For the second admissions cycle, Yale is accepting both the Test of English as a Foreign Language and the International English Language Testing System as indicators of English-language proficiency. While supporters of the IELTS said it reflects students’ language abilities better than the more widely accepted TOEFL, the IELTS has still struggled to match the popularity of the TOEFL among high schools and universities.
Accepting both the TOEFL and IELTS gives students the opportunity to take the most convenient exam, Dean of Admissions Jeff Brenzel said.
“The IELTS exam has been well validated as a test of functional proficiency,” Brenzel wrote in an e-mail message. “We wanted students to have the option of going either way in the event that one form of testing was more readily available than another, just as we do with the SAT and ACT exams.”
While the TOEFL and IELTS exams test the same skill groups, the exams have significantly different structures. While the TOEFL can be taken online or with a pencil and paper, the IELTS exam can only be completed on paper, with the exception of a small number of computer-based test centers.
The IELTS exam features two sections focused on academic reading and writing skills, beyond the basic skills tested in the TOEFL, said Beryl Meiron, the United States executive director for IELTS International. The IELTS also has a speaking section, unlike the paper version of the TOEFL.
Also unlike the TOEFL, the IELTS exam requires a face-to-face interview portion by a trained English-as-a-second-language official, Meiron said in a telephone interview.
“IELTS is a much more personal experience for the test taker,” she said.
Over the past four years, all eight Ivy League universities have quietly adopted the IELTS, although Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania do not accept the test for undergraduate admissions. Harvard College does not require an English-proficiency test for undergraduate applicants.
By accepting the IELTS, institutions allow students to take the exam that best fits their test-taking styles, Meiron said.
“When students have an option to take IELTS, because the item types are different and … the test environment is more friendly, they may find that their test anxiety is down,” she said. “They may perform better and get a truer measure of their English-language proficiency.”
As more schools accept the IELTS, test-preparatory companies around the country have expanded their services to take advantage of new student demand.
Kaplan Aspect, the English-language preparation company for test-prep company Kaplan Inc., currently offers extensive IELTS study courses in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, said Kaplan Aspect spokesman Russell Schaffer.
Still, some international private schools remain focused on preparing their students for the TOEFL.
At Stanstead College, a top-tier preparatory school in Quebec, students can prepare for the TOEFL exam through tutoring programs, said Eryn Hessian, Stanstead’s university guidance coordinator.
But until the IELTS exam becomes widely accepted, she said, it is unlikely the school will provide IELTS-specific tutoring.
“We’re just working on the TOEFL for now,” she said. “It is the standard for admissions in Canada and the U.S. The other exam has to be more recognized for us to go with it.”
Now that Yale and other Ivy League schools have accepted the IELTS exam, Meiron said, she hopes more American colleges and universities will begin to use it as a measure of English language proficiency.
“There are a lot of institutions that look at the Ivies, and particularly a school like Yale, to take the leadership position,” she said.
IELTS is now accepted by more than 1,700 academic institutions, professional bodies and accrediting institutions in the U.S., according to the IELTS Web site.