English proficiency test scores reliable?


Most non-native speakers of English who intend to work or study in an English-speaking country will need to sit for an English Proficiency Test of some kind. The TOEIC, the TOEFL, and the IELTS are common choices and are preferred by many institutions of higher education as well as many employers. Now, do you think that a TOEIC, TOEFL or IELTS test score is a reliable indicator of someone’s true English language proficiency?


They reliably indicate some level of English proficiency, and the cultural proficiency necessary to function in English, as long as there are not other factors that skew the score.

One factor could be that the learner speaks English well, but somehow is not familiar with that type of test and how to take it.

Another factor is that someone might have very high language proficiency but very low cultural proficiency. Sometimes we get people who have learned English to a very high level at excellent schools in China or India, but their feel for anglphone culture is so poor that they score two or three levels lower than they should. On the other hand, the cultural familiarity might be high and the language proficency low. In that case, you might have a guy with very bad English who has lived in an English-speaking country for several years, and may even be married to a native speaker. This guy will be able to make sense of the test better than someone who knows better English, and he’ll score two to five semesters too high.

One of the biggest problems with many of the tests is that they largely measure passive proficiency. This means that someone may get a very high score due to good comprehension, but may not be able to speak or write understandably.

Hi Jamie,

Thanks for posting a reply. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the IELTS, but in my opinion IELTS test results generally tell you quite a lot about an English student’s English. The IELTS includes four sections: Listening, Reading, Writing, and Speaking. The candidate is awarded Band Scores in all four sub-sections of the test. Especially the Writing and Speaking sections are helpful in determining a learner’s English proficiency.