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No admission when students have an unknown English test?

Covid-19 has led to students applying for courses with a raft of test results. Matt Salusbury introduces a set of guidelines which helps make sense of them

University admissions officers and EAP departments across the English-speaking world are asked to evaluate the English level of prospective international students based on results of tests they may never have heard of. In normal times, they can specify the exam qualifications required or, in some cases, the exams their governments mandate, generally including IELTS, TOEFL IBT and PTE Academic.

But these are not normal times. China’s national exams authority cancelled all its English tests, including IELTS and TOEFL, in February. And it was recently announced that tests for July wouldn’t go ahead either.

Most countries have had no English- language tests since March. UK exam centres for the Secure English Language Tests (SELTs), needed for UK immigration (see pages 18-19 of the BALEAP Guidelines), are opening up. However, the re-opening of overseas SELTs centres depends on which country they’re in.

So how are university admissions staff supposed to test the English level of international student applicants? The wriggle room they have varies by country of origin. Compare the US, where they can accept a much wider range of tests, to the UK where they can select their own criteria for testing English proficiency for ‘direct entry’ to degree level courses, but not for EAP pre-sessionals. However, UK-bound students must generally reach at least B2 on the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), and the tests are subject to audits by UK Visas & Immigration.

There are a bewildering range of tests out there for university admissions officers to choose from. Some are delivered at least partly online, with more online versions in development in response to Covid-19. Some can be arranged at relatively short notice – useful with universities in the Northern Hemisphere scheduled to start a new academic year in September.

There’s now a guide to many of these exams from BALEAP, the UK-based association for teachers of academic English. Guidelines on English Language Tests for University Entry has been compiled by BALEAP’s current testing officer, Professor Emeritus John Slaght, formerly Director of Assessment & Test Development (University of Reading).

We commend this guide, which was last updated in June; it’s well worth reading all 63 pages of it.

Guidelines on English Language Tests includes all the familiar SELTs, the Secure English Language Tests, as well as the TOEFL IBT which, according to the guide, “is currently regarded as a SELT, because of Covid-19”. Although, Professor Slaght advises that, “It is not known at this stage whether this will continue.”

A complete test that is completed in under an hour, for example, probably wouldn’t be appropriate. Other aspects include test security, validity and reliability, and whether it is mapped to CEFR. Many entries also come with evaluations from Professor Slaght, which may prove helpful.

We have used the BALEAP Guidelines to make a selection of some of the tests students might have taken, excluding the SELTs, which teaching staff mostly already know about.

Starting with institutional-based academic English tests, there is the University of Reading’s Test of English for Educational Purposes (TEEP). This is a fully paper-based test, but an online version is being developed in response to Covid-19. It’s delivered up to eight times a year by Reading University invigilators at the University and elsewhere. There are postgraduate and undergraduate versions, including Language Knowledge and Speaking tests. Its listening paper includes listening, reading and writing sections which are topic-based to simulate university practice. TEEP is included as an example of the information required for other bespoke tests, which institutions may wish to have included in the guidelines, as Professor Slaght also hopes to add other academic English tests, devised by academic institutions, to the Guidelines.

Also included are the Password English language tests devised by CRELLA at the University of Bedfordshire, which was involved in the development of IELTS and the Cambridge suite. There are five Password tests that can be delivered as stand-alones – Speaking (20 minutes), Writing (75 minutes), Listening, Reading and a Knowledge paper testing grammar and vocabulary. Currently, it is believed that Password requires one-to-one invigilation. For the latest information contact the exam provider.

The BALEAP Guidelines also evaluate tests which are not specifically for academic purposes, to determine how useful they might be as a guide to students’ academic level. For example, the Cambridge suite of exams includes Cambridge English: C2 Proficiency and Cambridge English C1: Advanced. There’s also Cambridge English: B2 First. The Guidelines suggest students with general English at this level are unlikely to have enough academic English for direct entry to many university level courses.

C2 Proficiency, last revised in 2013 to make it more suitable for higher education, tests the usual four skills plus Use of English. “Test takers at this level will have a high level of general language proficiency appropriate for most degree programmes,” as quoted in the Guidelines. Before Covid-19, C2 tests were offered four times a year in over 90 centres; while C1 tests were held every month, with a combination of paper-based and computer-based tests. Both tests use an array of security measures, including security- enhanced paper containing “hidden features,” and a simple verification system.

Cambridge also offer Linguaskill Business and Linguaskill General, designed primarily as placement tests. They’re delivered entirely online, with rapid results, and take between 60 and 85 minutes – rather short if we follow the Guidelines, which also notes there’s little by way of writing – 50 words for the first task and 180 words for the second, which may not be sufficient for academic study.

Pearson have created the entirely computer-based Versant English Placement Test (VEPT), delivered online and lasting 50 minutes, with a total of nine tasks. It can be taken anytime and delivered from any location, without the need for an examiner, although Pearson suggest an invigilator sitting in with the candidate would be a good idea to prevent fraud. The test gives a numerical score for the four skills, as well as data on typing speed. VEPT provides quick results, but the Guidelines observe that 50 minutes is very short and some tasks seem to “lack authenticity.”

Finally, there’s the Duolingo English test, taken online at low cost to the candidate and with results available in 48 hours. It’s mapped to IELTS, but not the CEFR. The Guidelines note that some universities are already accepting this for direct entry, but that, “it is a test of general English and quite limited in terms of what is tested … with no specific test of reading.”

This is, of course, just a short taster of the information available on the BALEAP website. More tests will be added to the Guidelines on English Language Tests for University Entry, so also check for updates. It’s the answer to an admissions officer’s prayers.

Thanks to Professor John Slaght for his help and for his work in producing the invaluable Guidelines.

To learn more about the language tests covered in Guidelines, simply click on these links

The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) *

The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)


Pearson Test of English (PTE Academic) *

Versant (VEPT)

Trinity Integrated Skills of English (Trinity ISE)

Michigan English Test (MET)

Test of English for Educational Purposes (TEEP)

Password English Language Tests

Cambridge English: C2 Proficiency post-2013

Cambridge English: C1 Advanced

Cambridge English: B2 First

Cambridge C1 Business English Higher

Kaplan International Pathways

LanguageCert *


The Aptis Test



** Temporary SELT


Matt Salusbury
Matt Salusbury
MATT SALUSBURY, news editor and journalist, has worked for EL Gazette since 2007. He is also joint Chair of the London Freelance Branch of the National Union of Journalists and co-edits its newsletter, the Freelance. He taught English language for 15 years in the Netherlands, in Turkey, in a North London further education college and now as an English for Academic Purposes tutor, most recently at the London School of Economics. He is a native English speaker and is also fluent in Dutch.
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