ETS (Educational Testing Service) used to be almost a monopoly. They created a test like the SAT or the TOEFL, and test takers signed up; they didn't really have a choice. Those days are over. The SAT, as mentioned in a previous column, is under siege from the ACT and the growing number of colleges (Fairtest.org) who are no longer requiring standardized tests. Now the TOEFL, with over a 1,000,000 test takers, each, on average, paying $140, a $140,000,000 concession, is also feeling the heat of competition.
The first threat to TOEFL began to seriously rear its head in 2003: the International English Language Testing System, the IELTS (www.ielts.org). This test, an entity of Cambridge University and a consortium of British and Australian organizations, is the test of choice for EFL students seeking to enroll in universities across the British Commonwealth. As the IELTS consolidated its dominion over the Commonwealth, it also, quietly, began its incursion into the US. In August of 2006, 800 US colleges and universities accepted it as an equal of the TOEFL. Today, that number is 1,700, including all the Ivy League schools and the University of California system. More painfully, from the ETS standpoint, over 1,000,000 EFL students took the IELTS last year; in sheer numbers it is an equal to the TOEFL.
Though both tests battle each other for market share (especially in Mainland China and the US), they do share a few things in common. Both are 'four skills' exams (reading, writing, listening, speaking) and offer their tests throughout the world. Yet, they also have their differences. The IELTS test is in 'international English', reflecting a mix of vocabulary and spelling that will be encountered in Britain, Canada, Australia, or the US. Then there's the question of how they measure speaking skills. The TOEFL students speak into a microphone to be analyzed by a panel of six reviewers. (Jaschik, Scott, "Taking on TOEFL" insiderhighered.com, August 7, 2006). The IELTS, on the other hand, uses a trained, face to face, interviewer for its speaking component. According to Andrea Scott, director of graduate admissions, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, "In IELTS, the person is trained to gauge the student's ability, and to increase or decrease the difficulty of the conversation to tell more." ("Taking on TOEFL")
As if the battle between TOEFL and IELTS was not enough, now comes yet another competitor, the Pearson Test of English. This is the Pearson publishing empire that owns the "Financial Times", "The Economist", and the Penguin Press; it has very deep pockets. In 2006 Pearson gained control of the GMAT, the test for business schools, from the ETS (Jaschik, Scott, "New Challenge to TOEFL" insidehighered.com, October 2, 2008). With its base among the business schools, Pearson expects to build a concession for EFL testing as an alternative to TOEFL and IELTS. The Pearson Test of English will also test the aforementioned "four skills" and will be in international English. What sets it distinctly apart is it will require students to respond to a "prompt requiring analytical thought and explanation-something comparable to what a student might experience in a classroom." ("Taking on TOEFL")
Are three tests for determining a student's competency in English a bad thing? Certainly ETS has its opinion. Yet for the EFL student, too much rides on this test: the more choice the better. For unlike the ACT or SAT (or GMAT or MCAT at the graduate level), there are distinct cutoff scores. If one test is a better metric of a student's English abilities, then relish the ability to be able to choose that test and pass on the others. Competition is usually a good thing, even for the ETS.