For nearly 45 years, higher education institutions in the U.S have been using the “Test of English as a Foreign Language” (TOEFL), for assessing a foreign applicant’s level and understanding of English. Likewise, a similar test called IELTS has been used in European English-speaking universities and colleges since 1989.
Now, Duolingo has entered the arena of English skills assessment.
Duolingo is a language teaching platform that offers online lessons and tests in over 37 languages, including English. The concept behind its creation, as revealed by one of its key developers, Jennifer Dewar (ex admissions official at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri), was to create a language learning and testing platform that overcame the obstacles of accessibility and make it easy for any student to gain language credentials from anywhere in the world.
Unlike TOEFL and IELTS which cost $180 and $240 respectively to take, a Duolingo test only costs $49 and it only requires the online participation of the student, along with a microphone and camera to screen the results and the candidate.
A common ground of these tests is that they all measure the candidate’s reading, writing, listening, and oral skills. However, the completion time for each varies. In TOEFL and IELTS, examiners will need to spend 3-4 hours to complete all test sections whereas in Duolingo, candidates will have to spend just 45 minutes to finish the test.
Dewar states that it is initiated through a special screening process that utilizes artificial intelligence to measure an examiner’s skills without having to use too many questions.
Despite Duolingo tests being accepted to some educational institutions around the world, there have been voices that don’t seem to be so enthusiastic about the potential and reliability of the test. For instance, a 2015 study conducted at Temple University in Philadelphia, has found that Duolingo isn’t the strongest evaluation tool to measure a student’s English level from an academic perspective.
David G. Payne, Chairman of Educational Testing Service which also operates TOEFL, further added that online test-taking raises some security concerns. He argued that currently, there is no advanced technology available that can 100 percent verify someone’s identity. The only guarntee is to have a student take a test in person.
John Segoda, Associate Executive Director of TESOL, the biggest official organization for teachers of English as a second language, seems to be somewhere in the middle. He states that it is up to educational institutions to decide for themselves whether a particular test such as Duolingo, is an accurate indicator of a candidate student’s level of English. He elaborates that universities will have to do their own research regarding the quality of the testing options they have available. It’s just a matter of time, he adds, where we’ll be able to tell if a specific test is better or worse at evaluating a student’s potential for Academic success.
In general though, having choices is a good thing. And this is what made Duolingo so appealing to students and some institutions that are now accepting the test in their student admissions.