How a $49 Test Disrupted an Industry
Disruption. Digital transformation. Neither of these tech buzzwords are typically associated with standardized testing. Until now.
Duolingo, the app once most famous for its novel approach to language learning and owl mascot, has another claim to fame: a brand-new take on standardized language testing.
The Duolingo English Test (DET) has a lot to offer: it’s relatively inexpensive at $49 (USD), it’s accessible, with test takers logging on from just about anywhere, and it’s efficient - results are available in only a few days.
The exam covers what you’d expect it to (reading, speaking, listening and writing), but the test itself is fluid; an incorrect answer prompts a less challenging follow-up question, allowing the test to assess language ability quickly.
Questions are short and blend all four assessment areas (reading, speaking, listening and writing), into one exam, a break from the traditional model of tests broken down by topic.
This is great news for test-takers. The DET only takes about an hour to complete, a far cry from the three to four hours students can expect to sit for a traditional pen-and-paper assessment - figures that don’t include travel times.
Screenshot of a fill-in-the-blanks question on the DET practice test.
Fluency takes centre stage. Test takers are asked to differentiate between audio and written examples of real English words and made-up jargon. Questions prompting the taker to describe a given image out loud emphasize intonation and idioms to assess ability, and essay and short-answer questions are nowhere to be seen - a far cry from more traditional structures.
The benefits aren’t exclusive to students. The test includes a video interview and free-writing sample. It’s ungraded but promises to help make admissions work easier by allowing schools to quickly assess fluency and level of comfort.
Let’s Talk Security
A hot-button issue for students and schools alike, especially after College Board’s foray into online testing, academic integrity is built in to the test. Identities are verified. Test takers have to be alone, show their ears, and avoid switching between tabs or looking off-screen for a significant amount of time, with webcams ensuring rules are followed.
In lieu of traditional proctors pacing classroom aisles, DET uses proctors by proxy who watch the video of the test being taken, monitoring for any red flags, while software and AI monitors eye movements and keystrokes. According to Duolingo, the test’s enormous bank of test questions means you’d have to take the test 1,000 times before duplicate questions appeared.
How Does it Measure Up?
Proficiency is reported on a scale of 10 to 160, corresponding with the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR). No section-specific feedback is offered. Test-takers can compare their DET results to TOEFL and IELTS results and take the exam twice in a 30-day period, receiving results valid for two years.
Duolingo is heading into its fourth admissions cycle, and a list of institutions accepting the test contains some of the biggest names in education, from Yale to Johns Hopkins. Some schools consider the DET to be supplemental, to be submitted alongside other language exams. When in doubt, reach out to admissions staff directly.
Will This Affect Admissions From China?
Yes. Duolingo has charted 1,000% annual growth in Mainland China, compared to 700% annual global growth.
This uptick could be because mainland China experienced the effects of COVID19 before other countries, or it could be timing: the TOEFL test is traditionally administered on dates that coincide with the Chinese academic year, based on the lunar calendar. The DET’s flexibility and efficiency makes it especially appealing to students looking to take their English proficiency tests after their exams.
While the TOEFL ITP test is now being conducted in China, students are required to write it in-person, and IELTS testing in Mainland China is still suspended until July. Both tests are also significantly more expensive, adding to Chinese student's enthusiastic response to the DET.
We don’t know if these changes to the world of standardized language testing are here to stay. We do know that there’s long been a drive to break down financial and geographic barriers to education.
Duolingo’s test appears to fill these gaps, providing reprieve to cash-strapped students (and their families), and are a welcome alternative for those who are unable to travel to test centers. It’s faster and more accessible, but it has one striking commonality with the current atmosphere in education: there are more questions than answers.
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