I sometimes tease my students by saying, “Do you TOIEC?” or “Do you TOEFL?” since those are apparently the most popular of the commercial English tests available here in Korea (and they still think that a good test score equals their English skill level per se). However, a quick internet search brought up this page with over 100 different English tests available locally and internationally (1). Therefore, it would be natural to be confused about which test is best for you and your needs as a student, employee, or prospective immigrant. In this article, I will attempt to look at some of the more useful and popular tests for a variety of users.
Get a rough idea of your English level for Free!
Organizations like Cambridge (https://www.cambridgeenglish.org/test-your-english/), the British Council (https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/online-english-level-test), Oxford (https://www.oxfordonlineenglish.com/english-level-test) and Education First (https://www.efset.org/free-english-test/) offer free tests to evaluate your English ability online, as a way to decide what are your skills, but not as a way to determine what other available tests/credentials you might want to study for. This site also offers nine other fairly comprehensive tests with answers from a variety of organizations (2). Interestingly, the English First website even provides a certificate proving that you took their test and achieved a particular level.
However, even Cambridge states on its website above, “Test Your English is not a Cambridge English exam, and the test scores and levels are very approximate. Your score on this test cannot be used as proof of a formal language qualification.”(Bolded italics mine) Therefore, the real value of these tests would be questionable at best and, unless they are used as a tool to help you choose the best of the commercially available tests for your needs like those discussed below, you are probably expecting too much from them.
What are the most popular official English proficiency tests? (3)
There are several internationally recognized English exams that you may have been encouraged to take or considered preparing for. However, each test has a specific purpose, and individual countries or schools may prefer that you use one over the others.
Most of these tests are not cheap, so before taking them, you need to be prepared. For some suggestions and mostly free resources to do this, see my article about this. Free English tests online—like the ones mentioned above—will be helpful as you prepare for the officially recognized exams.
IELTS: Short for the International English Language Testing System, this is one of the most well-regarded and widely used English exams and is a must for immigrating to many English-speaking countries. It offers two options, Academic and General, and has both papers based and written versions. (See www.ielts.org)
TOEFL: This one stands for the Test of English as a Foreign Language and is very similar to the Academic IELTS. However, unlike the other exams, it involves the applicant interacting solely with a computer during the test. A score of 90 or above is considered a good score, but different places may have different requirements for visas, university applications, etc. (See https://www.ets.org/toefl)
Cambridge: The Cambridge Assessment English is usually accepted throughout the U.K. It provides results from A1 (beginner) to C2 (advanced mastery), according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). These are designed to assess “which Cambridge English Qualification might be best for you. There are tests suited for every level, and in the end, you will get recommendations on how to improve your English.”(4) (See https://www.cambridgeenglish.org/)
TOEIC: The Test of English for International Communication is specifically used to test your everyday English skills for a workplace environment. It is closest in nature and purpose to the General IELTS test. (See https://www.ets.org/toeic)
OPI and OPIc: The Oral Proficiency Interview primarily measures your speaking skills, while the OPIc is the same exam, but entirely administered by a computer. You’re usually rated on a scale ranging from “novice” to “superior.” They are both based on and apply the ACTFL guidelines (5) to evaluate the test taker and can be scored using the ACTFL scale, Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale, or Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). (6) (See https://www.languagetesting.com/oral-proficiency-interview-opi or https://www.languagetesting.com/oral-proficiency-interview-by-computer-opic)
So, you have gotten a good score on one of the commercial tests. Now what?
One thing many students or immigrants do not realize when they get the ‘right’ score and are accepted into the immigration process or program of their choice, is that many organizations may still require you to complete a local English test created or supported by the local institution or government.
For example, in Canada, “There are two authorized test providers for evaluating your English skills, the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) and the Canadian English Language Proficiency Index Program (CELPIP)“ according to one website(7). However, many universities and some other organizations use the can TEST (8) as their primary English test.
Second, the time frame your English score is valid for may vary, so if there is a lengthy application period involved, it is possible that your score will expire and you will have to do the same, or a similar, test again. TOEFL and TOIEC scores are valid for up to 2 years, according to ETS. (9) (10) The IELTS test also has a two-year validity (11).
In the end, you should be sure to carefully check with the organization or program you are applying to in order to ensure that you are preparing for the best test (or tests) as part of the application and acceptance process. In the end, may your journey as an English learner be a positive and fulfilling one.
(3) Adapted from https://www.fluentu.com/blog/english/english-level-test/