International Test of English Proficiency offers low-cost tests over the internet
As the demand for learning English, the world's lingua franca, stays strong, the market for English testing is also growing.
Perry Akins, an American, ventured into that area five years ago and offered an alternative to students aiming to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the International English-Language Testing System (IELTS).
"The English test market is getting bigger because the world is getting flatter," says Akins, a former president of ELS Language Centres, one of the largest chains of English-language schools in the world.
After seeing hundreds of thousands of students take lengthy assessment tests, he and his colleagues decided to offer alternatives that could be taken more conveniently and at a lower cost.
The result is the iTEP (International Test of English Proficiency), an exam taken on the internet which assesses students' speaking, writing, listening and reading skills much the same way as TOEFL and IELTS do.
Students register online, and may sit the test three days later. The results are available within five days. The test lasts just 90 minutes and costs HK$767, compared with fees of more than HK$1,000 for IELTS and TOEFL.
Akins' company, Boston Educational Services, which is based in California, added 100 test centres to the mainland last year, bringing the total to 131. It has six centres in Hong Kong.
The iTEP also offers tests tailored to the business and hospitality sectors for recruitment or promotion purposes. It is developing other features, including a test for the property industry in Japan.
Its academic tests for university admissions are the most widely used. So far, about 350 US universities use the test, and Akins says five to 10 more are joining each month.
"We are adding colleges all the time," he says.
"Admissions officers tend to look for what is convenient for them. I told the colleges, if you want to get more qualified international student applicants, then you have to consider iTEP because it's more convenient and less expensive. The easier it is for students to apply to your school, the more international students you'll have."
American community colleges and the California state university system are among the other institutions that endorse the test. Ivy League universities have yet to do so, he says, adding cheerfully that "those schools have enough international student applicants already".
Authenticating the results is extremely important. Akins plans to install a programme soon that will take snapshots of the person taking the test. The snapshots will be provided to colleges and universities to help to identify applicants.
Akins admits there are limitations to any test. He thinks the best evaluation of a student's English proficiency comes from the student's regular English teacher. "The problem with any standardised test is that it tests very specific items, and some students may not test well.
"But we have to be realistic," he adds. "Sometimes a test gives indications that are as good as they can possibly be."
IELTS remains the world's most popular test for higher education and global migration, with two million tests sat around the world last year. It is the prime choice for students in Hong Kong.
"At our centre, we run very popular workshops to help students learn about the IELTS tests, but have not had the need to do so for TOEFL," says Tim Birkett, a language instructor at City University's English Language Centre.
He adds that as a British-based test, IELTS is morereadily recognised by British universities and those with close links to British education systems. TOEFL is more linked to the American system, and those with closer links to the US.