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URBANA — For applicants abroad, the University of Illinois has added a new English testing option for spring and fall 2022: the English test from popular language-learning app Duolingo.

This summer, the UI became the newest of more than 1,600 university systems that accept the app’s test as an admissions option.

Admissions met with UI linguistics faculty and analyzed some data from the app to determine whether it’d be a viable option for international students who are having trouble accessing the two typical proficiency exams during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both exams, the TOEFL and IELTS English tests, are usually administered in the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning on campus, which was closed during the early days of the pandemic.

Applicants who haven’t taken a requisite number of English credits must take an English exam within two years of their date of enrollment at the university.

UI admissions has been looking at Duolingo’s English test as an option for a while, director Andy Borst said, after hearing concerns from incoming students who couldn’t take the available tests.

Looking at the correlations in scores, “there was enough for them to approve” Duolingo’s test for the time being, Borst said.

“The biggest concern is about not having subscores that correlate with the existing tests,” he added.

The TOEFL English exam, the most common for UI admissions, measures test-takers on dimensions of reading, listening, speaking and writing.

A little over 9,000 applicants took the TOEFL exam in each of the 2019 and 2020 admissions cycles. For the IELTS test, 917 applicants took it in 2019, and 1,209 did in 2020, Borst said.

Meanwhile, Duolingo measures testers on comprehension, literacy, conversation and English “production,” which all require combinations of abilities to read, listen, speak and write.

It’s a more traditional, “psycholinguistic” approach to English testing, said Xun Yan, associate professor in linguistics who directs English placement tests on campus.

In a TOEFL exam, English skills are separated. A tester might read a paragraph and be asked a set of comprehension questions, for example.

Duolingo’s test items are more multi-pronged. The test may ask users to listen to a sentence and repeat it back, or see a list of words and construct a sentence.

“Language testing is my area of specialization, so I’ve been paying attention to research published or presented by Duolingo about their tests at conferences,” Yan said. “There is some evidence that suggests that the scores on the Duolingo English test is strongly correlated with scores in TOEFL and IELTS.”

But that’s just for the total scores on the tests, Yan added, and UI utilizes TOEFL and IELTS subscores for admission decisions. TOEFL also has in-person raters for speaking sections.

Either way, the English proficiency exam landscape is far more flexible than it was a year ago. In recent months, TOEFL and IELTS have also provided online, at-home versions of their tests for applicants struggling with access.

Students are required to self-report exam scores during admissions, then send the official reports if enrollment is offered by the school.

“If it doesn’t match, then we rescind the enrollment offer,” Borst said.

Whether the Duolingo option will stay is “hard to say,” Yan said, as continued research pours in for the digital test and its correlation with performance in the classroom.

“Our plan right now is to only accept Duolingo tests on a temporary basis,” he said. “I think a lot of universities that are similar to U of I that have a large number of international student population are taking this more in a more conservative way because they would like to see more evidence.”

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