English proficiency tests are essential tools for non-native speakers who wish to study, work, or live in English-speaking countries. Various tests exist, each with its unique purpose, scoring system, and acceptance criteria. This article aims to provide a comprehensive overview of the most common English proficiency tests, their similarities and differences, and how they relate to one another. By understanding these tests, you’ll be better equipped to select the one that aligns with your goals and maximizes your chances of success. Ultimately, your choice of test should align with your objectives and the specific requirements of the institution or company you plan to apply to.
Types of English Proficiency Tests
There are several widely recognized English proficiency tests available for non-native speakers. Among the most popular are:
- Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)
- International English Language Testing System (IELTS)
- Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic)
- Cambridge English Language Assessment
- Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC)
Each of these tests assesses the test takers’ language skills in different areas, such as listening, reading, speaking, and writing. Some are more specifically designed for academic or professional purposes, while others cover a broader range of language abilities.
Details About Each Test
TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language)
TOEFL is administered by Educational Testing Service (ETS) and follows a multiple-choice format. TOEFL is primarily designed for those planning to study in an English-speaking environment. This test assesses applicants’ abilities to handle academic materials and participate in academic settings. Many universities in English-speaking countries accept TOEFL scores as a part of their admissions process.
TOEFL has two primary testing formats: TOEFL iBT (internet-based test) and TOEFL PBT (paper-based test). The scoring systems for each format are as follows:
1. TOEFL iBT
The internet-based test consists of four sections: Reading, Listening, Speaking, and Writing. Each section is scored on a range of 0 to 30, making the total possible score 0 to 120. The scores from each section are combined to determine the overall TOEFL iBT score. The individual section scores are also important to meet specific skill requirements set by institutions or programs.
2. TOEFL PBT
The paper-based test has three sections: Listening Comprehension, Structure and Written Expression, and Reading Comprehension, along with an optional Test of Written English (TWE). The first three sections are scored on a range of 31 to 68, while the optional TWE is scored on a range of 0 to 6. Institutions may have specific requirements for the TWE score.
TOEFL PBT is being phased out and replaced with the TOEFL iBT. As a result, the iBT is more commonly used and accepted by institutions worldwide.
IELTS (International English Language Testing System)
IELTS is a globally recognized and widely accepted proficiency examination for non-native English speakers. It assesses students’ language skills in listening, reading, writing, and speaking. The test is offered both in Academic and General Training formats, catering to individuals pursuing higher education, professional registration or immigration purposes. Over three million people take the test annually.
This test utilizes a mix of multiple choice and open-ended questions, focusing on a more practical understanding of English. Scores range from 0 to 9, with most academic institutions requiring scores of 6.5 or higher.
PTE Academic (Pearson Test of English Academic)
PTE Academic, administered by Pearson, is a computer-based test assessing real-life academic and professional scenarios. Scoring ranges from 10 to 90. PTE Academic scores are typically used for applications to universities and professional organizations in the UK, Australia, and the United States.
Cambridge English Language Assessment
Cambridge English Language Assessment, a part of the University of Cambridge, is a globally recognized organization that offers comprehensive English language testing services. Cambridge English exams are designed to accurately measure and certify the language abilities of learners at various proficiency levels. The assessment is divided into several exams based on their difficulty levels. The exams are listed below, with the English levels corresponding to CEFR, Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (more about it, below).
- Young Learners English (YLE): for students at Pre-A1, A1, and A2 levels.
- Key English Test (KET): for students at A2 level.
- Preliminary English Test (PET): for students at B1 level.
- First Certificate in English (FCE): for students at B2 level.
- Cambridge Assessment English (CAE): for students at C1 level.
- Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE): for students at C2 level.
The overall score on a Cambridge English exam is an average of the scores achieved in the individual components (reading, writing, speaking, and listening). Each of these components is scored separately, and then the scores are combined to provide an overall result. To pass the exam, candidates must receive a minimum score in each of the four language skills.
TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication)
TOEIC is a widely recognized standardized assessment tool designed to gauge the English proficiency of non-native English speakers in a professional context (as opposed to academic context measured by TOEFL). Developed by Educational Testing Service (ETS), TOEIC evaluates the candidates’ listening, reading, speaking, and writing skills. The aim is to enable global companies and institutions to make informed decisions about hiring candidates for positions requiring English.
TOEIC comprises two main sections: the Listening and Reading Test, and the Speaking and Writing Test. Each section has its own scoring system.
1. Listening and Reading Test
This test consists of two sections: Listening (Section 1) and Reading (Section 2). Each section has 100 questions and is scored independently.
- Listening section (Section 1): This section consists of four parts, with a total of 100 questions. Each correct answer contributes one point to the listening score, which ranges from 5 to 495.
- Reading section (Section 2): This section also contains four parts and a total of 100 questions. The scoring is the same as in the Listening section, with each correct answer adding one point, and the final score ranging from 5 to 495.
The Listening and Reading scores are then added together to provide a total TOEIC score, ranging from 10 to 990. The scores are further divided into eight proficiency levels (ranging from A1 to C1), which correspond to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).
2. Speaking and Writing Test
The Speaking and Writing Test assesses an individual’s ability to express themselves in English through spoken and written communication. The scoring for this test is as follows:
- Speaking Test: The test comprises 11 questions/tasks, each of which is evaluated on a scale of 0 to 3 or 0 to 5, depending on the complexity of the task. The total score ranges from 0 to 200.
- Writing Test: This test consists of 8 questions/tasks, which are scored on a scale of 0 to 3 or 0 to 4, depending on the type of task. The final score ranges from 0 to 200.
The final TOEIC score is derived from a combination of the Speaking and Writing scores, ranging from 0 to 400.
What is CEFR and How These Tests Relate to CEFR
Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is a standardized framework for understanding language proficiency levels, with six primary levels ranging from A1 (basic user) to C2 (proficient user). Owing to this standardization, comparisons between different standardized tests become much simpler and institutions can more easily assess the language abilities of prospective applicants.
CEFR is not a test. It acts as a bridge between the tests as mentioned above and helps standardize proficiency levels.
|Description||CEFR||TOEFL (iBT)||IELTS||PTE Academic||Cambridge English||TOEIC (Reading & Listening)||TOEIC (Speaking & Writing)|
|Pre-beginner||Pre-A1||Below 22||Below 100||0 - 224||0 - 110|
|Beginner||A1||Below 42||Below 3.0||22 - 29||100 - 119 (PET)|
|High beginner||A2||Below 42||3.0 - 3.5||30 - 42||120 - 139 (KET), 118 - 123 (PET)||225 - 549||111 - 229|
|Intermediate||B1||42 - 71||4.0 - 5.0||43 - 50||140 - 159 (PET)||550 - 780||230 - 309|
|Upper intermediate||B2||72 - 94||5.5 - 6.5||51 - 58||160 - 179 (FCE)|
|Advanced||C1||95 - 120||7.0 - 7.5||59 - 78||180 - 199 (CAE)||785 - 944||310 - 359|
|Proficient||C2||120||8.5 or higher||79 or higher||180 or higher (CPE), 200 or higher (CAE)||945 or higher||360 or higher|
* Note: The correspondence between levels is approximate, and the interpretation of scores in any standardized tests may vary across different institutions.
Which English Proficiency Test should I choose?
There are several factors you should consider when it comes to choosing the right English Proficiency Test. Consider the following:
- Specific requirements of the college / university / company: Which test scores does the college, university, or company that you are applying to want? Some institutions may accept multiple test scores, while others prefer specific exams.
- Availability of the test in your region: Not all tests are available in your region. Visit the official website for each test and find out where the test takes place and when the test takes place. If you have a deadline to submit a test score to an institution, find out the date of the tests and consider whether you have enough time to prepare for them.
- Your English proficiency level: Identify your language proficiency level and the desired score you want to get in the test you are considering taking. Then, think about what kind of test preparations you need and whether you have the time and resource to adequately prepare for the test.
- Testing format: The testing format is different between the tests. Go to the official website for each test and take a look at the testing format. Is it something you are comfortable taking?
- Availability of test preparation materials and/or test prep programs: To study for the test, you will need test preparation books specialized for the test. You may also need the help of a tutor or a test preparation program in a language school. Find out whether you have access to such books, tutors, or test preparation programs in your region.
- Cost: Each test has a different cost. Go to the official website and find out the cost.
Consider the above points carefully and choose the test that is right for you.
Richard Zhang, M.Ed., is an educator and a software developer with a Masters degree in education from University of Toronto and an immense passion for education and learning. Until the pandemic, Richard owned an award-winning learning centre in Toronto. For 15 years, he has taught and mentored hundreds of elementary, middle school, and high school students succeed in academics. He is also an app developer specializing in web and mobile application in educational and business sectors.