More than 400 students in India told to retake language tests after Niagara College flags concerns
By NICHOLAS KEUNG Immigration Reporter
An Ontario college has raised concerns over the validity of the scores of a popular international standardized language test submitted by students applying from India after a probe found “inconsistencies” in language proficiency.
Niagara College has contacted more than 400 students admitted to its January 2019 programs who had taken IELTS tests at locations in India, telling them they had to undergo a second English test or risk losing their offer of admission.
The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is accepted by most Canadian academic institutions and is one of two major English language tests used by Immigration Canada as independent proof of an immigration or citizenship applicant’s language proficiency.
Steve Hudson, Niagara College’s vice-president of academic and learner services, said the school launched an investigation this fall after the number of first-year international students flagged by faculty for being “at risk academically” surged to 300 from an average of 150 in previous years.
Those students were made to take an in-house language test and the college found 200 out of that group were failing in their academic programs because their English was not at the required level. Further investigation found 80 per cent of them were from India and had taken their IELTS tests at locations run by Australia-based IDP Education.
Niagara College said officials alerted IDP Education with their findings shortly after the fall semester started and notified immigration authorities last week.
“Based on (our analysis), we felt we needed to be absolutely certain that applicants for our winter 2019 term have a level of English proficiency that will allow them to succeed, and we wanted to do this before they invested significant time and money to travel here to study,” Hudson said in a statement to the Star.
The IELTS test, which is jointly owned by IDP Education, the British Council and Cambridge Assessment English, is a three-hour exam that assesses candidates’ listening, reading, writing and speaking skills on a scale of 1 to 9. A score of 9 indicates the person is an “expert user” with full command of the language. But it is up to individual organizations to determine a pass score.
More than three million IELTS tests were taken in the last year by people around the world, according to IDP Education.
“The test is recognized for being fair to all test-takers regardless of nationality, cultural background, gender or special needs,” Warwick Freeland, managing director of IELTS/IDP Education, said in an email statement from Melbourne.
“IELTS is the leading English language test for international students in Canada,” he said, adding “results from all IELTS test centres, including all centres located in India, continue to be accepted for admission to Niagara College.”
In a followup email to the Star on Saturday, IDP Education raised questions about the value of the in-house test Niagara College gave to the Indian international students in the fall cohort, saying the college “used a low-stakes” test which is “not approved by Canadian education institutions or government to check their English language skills.”
Niagara College’s Hudson said the IELTS language test results submitted by the first-year at-risk students from India this fall were authenticated by IELTS and the school is treating the “inconsistencies” in their scores and language proficiency as a one-time anomaly. “We continue to believe IELTS is a good test for assessment of English proficiency,” he told the Star.
“We have been open to dialogue with IDP and have been communicating our interest in understanding (the) rationale for the larger number of students identified being at risk of failure,” Hudson said in a followup email on Saturday. “Academic quality and student success has always been and will remain at the core of Niagara College’s decision-making.”
An Immigration Department spokesperson said officials are looking into the matter.
There have been previous instances that have exposed the vulnerability of the administration of language testing around the world:
- A Pennsylvania State University student from China pleaded guilty this year after paying someone to take the TOEFL English-language entrance exam for her.
- In 2016, several people in Britain were convicted of running an immigration scam that paid fake “sitters” to take TOEIC language exams for non-EU students.
- In Australia, an employee at Curtin University’s English Language Centre was found guilty in 2011 of accepting bribes and manipulating IELTS results through the centre’s computer system. The case triggered an investigation by Western Australia’s Corruption and Crime Commission.
Freeland, who said IDP Education partners with a range of organizations who administer IELTS in 140 countries, maintained “IELTS is a secure and valid indicator of a candidate’s ability.”
“All test centres are rigorously monitored to ensure they operate to the highest of standards,” he said.
The test, which costs about $215 in India, has two versions, one for higher-level academic purposes and a general version that measures a person’s ability to function in English.
Niagara College said the school will be responsible for covering the cost of retesting for the 428 students in India and the tests must be completed by Monday.
Gonzalo Peralta, executive director of Languages Canada, an association that represents more than 200 providers of accredited English and French language programs across the country, said maintaining the integrity of language tests is important to the international education sector.
“Language testing is one tool that tells everybody — the students, institutions, Immigration Canada and employers — with confidence that this person is ready to perform linguistically,” he said in an interview. “You can’t run international education without appropriate and good-quality testing. So much depends on it.”
Peralta said test operators constantly update their security measures and have tight rules in place at local test centres, including requiring photo ID and banning cellphones.
When informed about the situation at Niagara College, Peralta said, “I’m concerned it impacts one of our good members, Niagara College. I’m also concerned for the students who have invested substantially to learn. I’m concerned about IDP, not knowing what has happened.”
According to the Canadian Bureau for International Education, there were 494,525 international students in Canada at all levels of study in 2017, a 17 per cent increase over the previous year. Some 123,940, or 25 per cent, of these students came from India, which made up the second largest contingent behind China.
At Niagara College, which has campuses in Welland and Niagara-on-the-Lake, 2,914 of a total 4,683 international students come from India. Tuition fees for international students average $13,500, more than triple the amount their Canadian peers pay.
Hudson said the school received about 8,200 international applications for the winter 2019 term, of which 4,800 applicants were from India, where the school recruits through international education fairs. The college made 1,300 admission offers to Indian applicants; 428 of those students have been asked to retake the IELTS test or take the alternative Pearson Test of English.
“We recognize that this is stressful for these applicants and their families, but we want to ensure that before they make significant financial and emotional investments involved with travelling to Niagara College to study, that they have the opportunity to be successful in their studies,” said Hudson.
“We believe the hardship they would experience if they were to travel here and be unable to succeed in their program of study would be much more significant. We will continue to engage with the applicants and IDP throughout this process.”