The HE IELTS Blame Game

This article is a real head-shaker: More than 400 students in India told to retake language tests after Niagara College flags concerns. As the subtitle to this article puts it, “an Ontario college has raised questions 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”.

I’m shaking my head over so many aspects of this situation. There are so many leaps of logic. And it seems like they didn’t really take the time to consult people that understand the IELTS exam and its shortcomings and/or the interplay of English fluency and teaching/learning in higher education. 

  • So, the faculty of this college flagged 300 students for being “at risk academically” (How? Using what tool/metric/method? Did unconscious bias/systemic racism play a role in who gets flagged as it has and does in lots of other Canadian higher ed contexts? ).
  • This was more than the 150 students flagged last year. (Did the demographics of the students admitted to the college also change in this time?)
  • The student flagged were made to take an in-house language test. (Was this test? Who designed it? Was it valid/reliable? Who corrected it? Does it test what the IELTS tested? Does it test content knowledge?) 
  • The college found 200 out of the group that did the in-house test were failing in their academic programs because their English was not “at the required level”. (Wait, what? How did we jump from students’ language proficiency to failing their academic programs/being “at-risk”? Don’t they realize that you can fail a course for many reasons?) 
  • The majority of the students who failed the in-house test were from India and had done the IELTS at IDP centres in India (How many more Indian students did the college admit this year over last year? How many cities and centres are we talking about?). So the college freaks out about the discrepancy between the IELTS score and the score on the in-house test, alerts IDP and IRCC (!) about these ‘inconsistencies’, making it sound like there’s testing fraud at IDP centres. (Do they not know how common it is for there to be a discrepancy between IELTS scores and real-life language ability? That you can get a 6.0 IELTS (the score required for admission to Niagara College) and not be able to meet the academic demands of higher education, which are much more complex and broad than what is tested on the IELTS?)
  • The college is paying for 400 Indian applicants to be re-tested (Where? With what test?) before they can be admitted for January. 

It seems to me like this college opened the floodgates and admitted a very large number of students who use English as a second/additional language from India, all at once, without considering or making any arrangements for (1) students’ development of academic language and literacies appropriate for the Canadian college context or (2) developing their faculty’s skill and ability to teach a culturally and linguistically-diverse student clientele (3) adapting curriculum to a very culturally and linguistically-diverse student body whose academic language and literacies are varying and will need support and development.

This college does not seem to understand that the IELTS exam only tests what it tests, and that is only a tiny sliver of the broad spectrum of linguistic and academic skills needed to succeed in English-medium higher education. So someone can get a 6.0 (or higher!) on the IELTS and still be unable to succeed at university. Think of the IELTS as testing running speed, and studying in higher education as soccer. I may be a very fast runner, and running is an important part of soccer, and I have to be able to run a certain speed to get onto the soccer team. But just because I can run fast doesn’t mean I’ll be able to play soccer well or be a star player. I need some training in some of the other skills involved in soccer, like dribbling, passing and shooting. 

As well, this college doesn’t seem to grasp the fact that many people can train specifically for the IELTS exam, and without any fraud or nefarious tricks, get a score much higher than what their real-life language ability would suggest.  You could go to any university or college in Canada and test first-semester students on an in-house language test and you’d find lots of students with a discrepancy between that test score and their IELTS score. It’s simplty the nature of the beast. Far be it from me to defend IELTS or IDP, but it seems like in this case they’ve become scapegoats for an inadequate institutional response to very rapid changes in admissions demographics for this college. 

Institutions can make a fuss about IELTS scores, but it won’t be enough to ensure an equitable teaching and learning environment for students from all linguistic backgrounds. Regardless of what a certain IELTS score for admission may be, institutions have to change their curricula, integrating time and space for the development of academic language and literacies into their courses and programs. If you want a very diverse group of students to possess certain skills, you have to teach them!

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Reversing Deficit Discourses

Around this time of year, I tend to do different talks around the university for faculty, staff or teaching assistants about dealing with linguistically-diverse classes in terms of teaching and learning.

I’ll often begin these sessions by talking about what faculty, staff or TAs can do to help avoid the deficit discourses around international students and ESL/EAL students at our universities. It’s a matter of framing: international students are often characterized as lacking language or cultural skills, but I encourage folks to remember that international students are actually in the process of adding language varieties and cultural know-how to their repertoire.

Then I bring out my most cited of Bourdieu quotes–“academic language […] is no one’s mother tongue” (Bourdieu et al., 1994, p. 8)”–and remind everyone that all students are in the process of acquiring academic and English and the language of their discipline. Depending on their linguistic background, some students from non-English-speaking backgrounds just have a bit farther to travel than those raised and educated using English to add Canadian Academic English to their repertoire of languages.

None of this is particularly revolutionary, but it can be a bit of a reframing of things for folks who don’t spend all day thinking about language and working with people developing their English language proficiency. The monoglot ideology (Silverstein, 1996) is really prevalent in of English Canada: in general, English Canadians are really not very successful language learners, and tend to fall into the “everyone else can speak English so why should I learn anything else?” trap. Even in places with a lot of cultural diversity, a real embracing of linguistic diversity, valuing multi/plurilingualism, on behalf of the whole population –including monolingual English speakers, and not just those who happen to speak a non-English heritage language at home–doesn’t necessarily follow. The lack of linguistic diversity on the CBC is one example of this. 

 

Bourdieu, P., Passeron, J.-C., & Martin, M. D. S. (1994). Academic Discourse: Linguistic Misunderstanding and Professorial Power (1 edition). Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Silverstein M. (1996). Monoglot “standard” in America: Standardization and metaphors of linguistic hegemony. In D. Brenneis & R. Macaulay (eds.), The matrix of language: Contemporary linguistic anthropology, 284–306. Boulder, CO : Westview Press.

They Won’t Know Unless You Tell Them

One of my least favourite genres of article is the Kids these days…!  or Back in my day, we…. article focusing specifically on university students. At a very regular frequency, these articles appear in the mainstream press and in publications focusing on academia alike. They invariably consist of a lot of hang-wringing because unlike the (usually Baby Boomer-age) authors of these articles, today’s university students are brainwashed capitalist zombies addicted to social media, who can’t spell or use grammar correctly, and are coddled snowflakes who can’t handle the real world without a trigger warning.

That’s why I loved this article, What First Years Might Not Know and What To Do About It. It’s short blog post listing academic behaviours–emailing, note-taking, interacting with professors–that many first-years lack upon arriving at university simply because they’ve never learned them. The post reminds faculty and staff that they may have to explicitly teach these behaviours. Your first-year students don’t know how to write a proper email? Rather than bemoan that this indicates that the decline of Western civilization, well, just teach them how to do it and get on with it.

And if students are not exposed to these academic behaviours in North American high schools and have to be taught, then what about students who are arriving to a completely new academic culture when they arrive at a Canadian university from another country? For me, this further underlines the need for academic expectations and behaviours to be made explicit and specifically taught to domestic and international students alike. Academic English is no one’s mother tongue, and similarly, no one is born knowing that you shouldn’t use emojis in an email to your prof. If you want someone to act in a certain way, well, then show and tell them what you want; otherwise, how are they supposed to know?