The Sisyphean trap of language proficiency testing

By Isha Sadiq Haider 

Before we even contemplate advancing our academic pursuits (especially in good institutions in “native-English-speaking” countries) we are thronged with achieving a minimum score on an English language testing portal accepted by the respective academic body. And in the event we fail to do so, our application is flat-out discarded!


Mind it, this is irrespective of our possible erudite acumens in our own (non-English)specializations; as if our performance in these automated tests somewhat “defines” us and our ability to progress at large…

This, in my belief, is an outrageous farce! A farce built on a monopoly of economic gains. A farce fortified by academic artisans for ulterior interests. And a farce that needs to be recognized by lay learners falling into these Sisyphean traps over, and over, and over again!

With over 100English language testing portals looming over students, it is high time we dissect the subject in the light of truth and nurture a clearer understanding of what we are dealing with. Only by critically presenting counter-arguments to our present-day comprehension of the matter, will we be able to effectively contend with it, and raise awareness of the unseen picture of this lexical imposition.

Language Proficiency Tests are exactly that and nothing more- Tests assessing a testee’s proficiency in the language being tested. They are a plethora of pre-structured hypothetical questions endeavoring to understand the comprehension ability of an individual of a certain language. So far so good, but the problem arises when the results of these tests are linked to one’s aptitude as a whole, whereby, one gets barred to progress in academia just because of being unable to achieve the benchmark set out by the accepting institution.


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When one fails to achieve the minimum Band score/grade/percentage et.al, their applications are perfunctorily rejected on the assumption that they will not be able to do well in their studies. In the context of academics, isn’t this rejection unfair and discriminatory; that too coming from organizations imparting education!?

Institutions need to realize that an individual can improve his or her language level even after being accepted into the program. After all, the onus is vested with the student to understand what is being taught. Concurrent with learning the core of the program, one can perpetually embark on improving one’s language skills. After all, the journey of seeking knowledge is from cradle to the grave for any sincere learner.

Another red flag is the duration of validity of the test scores received from these so-called proficiency assessments. A majority of these scores are valid for a maximum of two years, after which they must be repeated. If these were purely language testing platforms without any ulterior motives, why would the duration be so limited? Do the language abilities “vanish” in two years, or is this more of an economic agenda being imposed on students?

On the contrary, with the passing of time and the gaining of more experience, language abilities are bound to rise, not fall. As an alternative, a choice must be provided to the applicant to use their latest scores (even if beyond 2 years) for their applications.5 years could be considered a more logical score-validity-period, but 2 years is practically a conspiracy!

Moreover, the learner must have the liberty to sit for another language assessment whenever they feel their level has improved from their prior performance. After all, if someone believes their level has improved, why would they choose to stick with their former scores?

It is integral to assess this empirically as well, i.e. by looking at the hefty sum of application fees that are involved with these testing portals. With fees peaking over USD 350 per application in some countries, we are left mind-boggled with the mammoth figure that is being piled every two years in the name of language assessment. Where the validity was for five years (which is much more logical) the expensive amount would have been easier to swallow, however, the audacity of large test fees and such short score validities must be vociferously debated.

In that light, while the didactic nature of proficiency testing is indisputable, limits must be set on how we use the scores we receive from these tests to assess our potential in the arena of academia and life. Because only by obtaining a thorough understanding of the economically motivated underpinnings of these Sisyphean assessments, will we, as laymen, be able to abate the negative reflections of our abilities that are falsely calculated by them.


A contributor for The Dispatch and The Eastern Herald, the writer is the owner of two K-12 schools in India, one of which has been granted CBSE affiliation. She is an MBA in Information Technology & Finance with several years of work experience in KPMG Tax in Kuwait. She is also a published poet and writer.


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