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English exams on test

Can IELTS and TOEFL results be extrapolated for academic success?

TOEFL and IELTS scores are equally valid for college entrance, but their ability to predict overall academic success is weak, according to a meta-analysis by Samuel Ihlenfeldt and Joseph Rios at the University of Minnesota, USA.

Increasing numbers of non-native English-speaking students are applying for undergraduate and postgraduate courses taught in English, in their own countries or in an English-speaking country. For example, in 2019 there were over a million international students in the US, over 5% of the total student body – an increase of 60% since 2010.

Currently, TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and IELTS (International English Language Testing System) are the leading English language assessments for college entrance. These assessments were designed specifically to test proficiency in academic English, although IELTS is generally considered to also have a more everyday usage component.

However, as well as testing language proficiency specifically, TOEFL and IELTS scores are also commonly used to assess overall likelihood of academic success, despite not being developed or validated for this purpose. In practice, where applicants have borderline or slightly lower academic grades, students with higher TOEFL or IELTS scores may be more likely to be admitted.

Ihlenfeldt and Rios combined 32 previous studies (2006-2021) to test whether TOEFL and IELT scores can actually predict academic success (principally as GPA – grade point averages). They found that, although both assessments were significant positive predictors of academic success, the size of the correlation was small (r= 0.2, p< 0.001) and there was no difference between using TOEFL or IELTS scores.

The authors were able to test whether level of study (undergraduate vs postgraduate) or type of school (public* or private) moderated the relationship between English scores and academic success. Surprisingly, neither had any influence. Most of the studies in this meta-analysis were based in the US and the students were mainly taking business or social-science courses, leaving open questions regarding how the two English assessments relate to different academic subjects, such as science and technology – as well as the influence of students’ native language and host institution.

While good TOEFL and IELTS scores certainly facilitate higher education in English, both admissions personnel and students should avoid being overly optimistic – or pessimistic – about overall academic success.

*In the US, government-run schools are referred to as ‘public’, whereas in the UK, these are ‘state’ schools, and ‘public’ schools are actually private, fee-paying schools.


  • Ihlenfeldt, SD and Rios, JA (2022), ‘A meta-analysis on the predictive validity of English language proficiency assessments for college admissions’. Language Testing, DOI: 10.1177/ 02655322221112364
Gill Ragsdale
Gill Ragsdale
Gill has a PhD in Evolutionary Psychology from Cambridge, and teaches Psychology with the Open University, but also holds an RSA-Cert TEFL. Gill has taught EFL in the UK, Turkey, Egypt and to the refugees in the Calais 'Jungle' in France. She currently teaches English to refugees in the UK.
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