Tests that make money
Vast market for English proficiency tests lures private, public, non-profit sectors
By Kim Da-ye
Kim, a 29-year-old working at a brokerage house, has taken three different English proficiency tests for a total of four times in his life despite speaking the language as fluently as a native speaker.
He took the TOEFL test twice for college admission and the TOEIC and the TOEIC Speaking and Writing test once for each as the test results were mandatory in job applications.
“I had to take the tests to apply for jobs. At the end of the day, it only benefits ETS (Educational Testing Service). It’s pointless. The validity of the test results expire in a couple of years,” Kim said.
Kim is among millions of English proficiency test takers in Korea who have to prove their language skills through multiple stages of their lives.
English proficiency test results are required in admission to prestigious secondary schools, graduation from some universities, admission to overseas educational institutions, job applications and promotions.
It isn’t unusual to find office workers take the TOEIC test over and over again to meet the cut-off scores required for promotions and career change. TOEIC is designed to assess English language skills used at the workplace.
It is only natural that the market for English proficiency tests is huge in Korea. The test products aren’t cheap. It costs $170 to take the TOEFL, the most widely accepted academic English language test. If a person wants to take the test within a week, he or she needs to pay extra $35. It costs $60 to change the test date, $17 to get the result sent to more than four institutions and $60 to get the speaking and writing tests re-graded.
The market, currently an oligopoly dominated by the Princeton, N.J.-based ETS, is so lucrative that both the public and private sectors want a bite.
The biggest change in the market is the introduction of the National English Ability Test (NEAT) this year by the education ministry.
NEAT assesses test takers’ listening, reading, speaking and writing skills, and seven universities use the test results in evaluating applicants for admissions.
By the end of the year, the ministry will also decide if NEAT can replace the foreign language part of the College Scholastic Ability Test, the Korean version of SAT.
The test divides into three categories with the Class One NEAT catering to adults and the second and third to students. The Class One NEAT targets to replace foreign English-language tests such as the TOEIC.
Apart from NEAT’s core goal to properly assess Korea’s practical English language skills, NEAT clearly has its commercial purpose.
A policy paper, written in 2008 to explore the need and ways to develop a national English proficiency test, says that foreign-developed English proficiency tests accounted for 81 percent of the entire market in terms of the number of test takers and 88 percent in terms of fees.
In 2005, Korea was the biggest market for TOEFL with 102,340 test takers, compared to India’s 42,238 and China’s 17,963.
“The high dependency on foreign English proficiency tests means 23 billion won in foreign currencies flowing out of Korea each year,” the policy paper said.
Korea goes red with envy for Japan’s Society for Testing English Proficiency (STEP), a nonprofit body established in cooperation with the Japanese education ministry.
STEP says on its website that 2.3 million took the test annually at 18,000 test sites. The 2008 policy paper says that STEP made 6.4 billion yen in 2006. The test has also been recognized by institutions in the U.S., Australia, Canada and the U.K.
Among private firms, the competition has become increasingly fierce with new comers from both home and abroad.
Pearson, a U.K.-based publisher, launched English proficiency tests, aggressively seeking to expand the presence of PTE Academic, an alternative to the TOEFL.
PTE Academic, which costs 210,000 won to take, apparently aims to fill the gaps left by existing tests.
In case of the TOEFL, it usually takes two weeks to receive the results while Pearson guarantees results available within five business days. Emma Stubbs, the senior vice president for language testing at Pearson, said in an interview with The Korea Times that it actually takes one and half days on average globally. Stubbs developed the Chinese market for IELTS, a British equivalent of TOEFL that is widely accepted in Australia as well.
Pearson also promises more — and flexible — time slots available for those who need to urgently take an English proficiency test. Because of excessive demand over the TOEFL, test takers need to making a booking a few weeks in advance. It isn’t difficult to find Koreans who fly to less populated cities in Japan such as Osaka.
Stubbs also emphasizes the intensive use of technology in PTE Academic. While every stage of the test from registration to release of the result is done electronically, biometric technology including palm vein scans and voice samples ensures that test frauds are identified and prevented.
Furthermore, aiming to be a globally accepted English proficiency test, scripts of PTE Academic’s listening test have been read in native English speakers’ accents as well as those of non-native speakers such as Indians and the Chinese.
While a test should be designed to assess people’s language skills correctly, recognition by as many institutions as possible is the key to the commercial success of a test.
“The market is driven by recognition,” Stubbs says.
“A lot of our focus is on working with universities, business schools and governments to help them understand how and why we believe PTE Academic is of high quality as it is.”
Pearson says that nearly 3,000 academic programs accept PTE Academic globally and the U.K. Border Agency and the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship do so for student visa applications.
For global language proficiency test makers, the potential markets are vast. For instance, the Australian immigration authority recently abolished the IELTS’ monopoly, accepting other English language tests including PTE Academic and TOEFL.
As a late comer, however, PTE Academic will take some time to be chosen by consumers over the TOEFL. In terms of acceptance, Oral Proficiency Interview - computer (OPIc) shows an interesting business model.
As employers became increasingly aware that the TOEIC isn’t adequate to test applicants’ practical language skills, demand for speaking and writing tests rose.
Credue, an online education company, launched OPIc in Korea in cooperation with the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, which originally developed the test.
Because Samsung Electronics and its affiliates accept or require OPIc scores as the standard proof for applicants’ English speaking skills, the demand for the test grew very fast. It is now widely accepted by other conglomerates including LG and Hanwha.
While OPIc does have strengths including test results being available within five business days, it is a noteworthy fact that Credue is a de-facto affiliate of Samsung Group. Samsung SDS and Samsung Economic Research Institute together control more than a 60 percent stake of Credue.