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Caroline Browne, Password, UK

Students come to university with a variety of English language qualifications, some as much as two years old. Putting them all through the same independent, CEFR aligned test on arrival is now an important part of induction into many institutions.
April 19 2013
6 Min Read

Caroline Browne is MD of Password English Language Testing Ltd. She worked for a university and at INTO University Partnerships before setting up her own company to develop the Password tests, which were developed for the pathway sector although their repertoire has since expanded.

The PIE: When did you set Password up? Do you own the company?

CB: Yes, I’m the majority shareholder of English Language Testing Ltd, which is the company that designs, develops and delivers the Password tests. The University of the Arts London is also a major shareholder. Password began about 12 years ago when I was at Brunel University and tasked with trebling international student numbers within three years.

To achieve this, I knew the university must respond to the many international students (particularly from China) who required a pre-university or pathway programme before beginning their university course. At that time there was no reliable way of assessing the English language level of these students pre-arrival. The choice was between taking a full-skills based test such as IELTS or TOEFL which tested skills the students had yet to acquire or having the students take a crude unsecure paper-based test, usually administered at an educational agent’s office, which generally produced unreliable results.

“The choice was between taking a full-skills based test or a crude unsecure paper-based test”

The PIE: So how did you think you could bridge the gap?

CB: Obviously, students arriving with a lower level of English than expected caused many problems for the university, and indeed for the students themselves. Seeking a solution I started talking to a group of universities about putting together a consortium to develop a different sort of test – which would be appropriate for students who had undertaken some English language training and had some knowledge of English but who came from all sorts of different backgrounds in terms of what they had learnt and language profiles.

I discovered Professor Cyril Weir’s team of experts in testing and assessment at CRELLA and the idea of an online test of language knowledge was born.

The PIE: When did you launch the first Password test and how many test takers do you have now?

CB: The first Password test launched in October 2008 and we now work with around 200 universities and colleges, primarily in the UK and Australia. We have just opened in North America and we also have pockets of universities in other areas such as the Middle East and South East Asia.

The PIE: And in general are all institutions using Password for the same reason – as an entry test to pathway programmes?

CB: No, not at all, and that’s what’s been really interesting. Whilst the driver for developing Password was testing students’ pre-arrival for admission to pathway programmes, our partner universities and colleges have developed various different ways of using Password tests for different purposes. Currently there are two main ways the original Password test, now called Password Knowledge, is used. Firstly, as an entry test to pathway programmes and English language courses, usually pre-arrival though it can be for placement on arrival. This use has grown enormously as pathway programmes have flourished.

“A development that we would never have predicted, Password Knowledge is increasingly being used as a Post Enrolment Language Assessment”

Secondly, and a development that we would never have predicted, Password Knowledge is increasingly being used as a Post Enrolment Language Assessment (PELA). The University of Essex in the UK and Griffith University in Australia were the first to use Password in this way – testing all international students on arrival to check that their English language level was at the required level to succeed with their academic studies.

Traditional paper-based testing of new students can take weeks to administer and mark – using Password enables universities to identify students with unexpectedly weak English in week one and offer immediate remedial support.

The PIE: That is interesting..

CB: Yes, Students who need help are given it at the beginning of their course rather than many weeks into the first semester when they are struggling with their academic studies. [more>>]

CB: This is an area which is rapidly growing, particularly in Australia where the government’s quality agenda is promoting the idea of PELA as good practice. It is also becoming more commonplace in the UK and this year we have seen a lot of interest from universities wishing to move away from paper-based testing.

The PIE: I guess this also helps with standardising results?

CB: Yes exactly. Students come to university with a variety of English language qualifications, some as much as two years old. Putting them all through the same independent, CEFR aligned test on arrival, a level playing field if you will, is now an important part of induction into many institutions.

The PIE: What other tests have you developed and how are these used?

CB: We now have Password Reading and Writing test modules in addition to Password Knowledge. These have been developed following consultation with our university and college partners who wanted to extend Password testing to a wider range of students. Some are now using the three modules in conjunction with their own listening and speaking tests for entry to university courses following pre-sessional programmes.

In the next couple of years , in response to demand from our partners, we will be launching Password Listening and Speaking modules so that we can offer a full skills-based test.

The PIE: Ok and when you launch listening and speaking, how will you differ from IELTS and TOEFL?

CB: The big difference really is that IELTS and TOEFL deliver tests to students in test centres and charge students around £150; students then use their certificates in support of their university applications. We are different because we sell our tests to universities, colleges and schools offering them control over the testing of their own students.

“Another difference is cost; Password tests typically cost less than a 10th of IELTS or TOEFL”

The test user themselves is responsible for test administration and invigilation. Another difference is cost; Password tests typically cost less than a 10th of IELTS or TOEFL.

Finally we work in partnership with institutions, often to enhance their own testing. Password is co-branded and customised to best suit the students being tested and the institution, and of course Password can be run wherever and whenever the institution needs to test students. Some institutions like to include something of their own in the test, for example their own essay questions in the writing test, and we can put this online for them.

The PIE: Do you work at all with language schools?

CB: Yes, we have recently developed, in collaboration with English UK, a semi-adaptive placement and end-of-course test especially for language schools. We also work with several government bodies around the world who typically use our tests to benchmark English language teaching and attainment in high schools.

The PIE: We talked earlier about testing in Australia – isn’t there some research going on there at the moment suggesting that some international students may leave university with a lower level of English than when they arrive?

CB: Yes, it’s very interesting. It would seem that students study hard to improve their English before joining university courses because they have to prove themselves to be at a certain level. When they get to university, outside of their studies where they need to use academic English, often they will spend most of their time with their own nationality group.

In living and socialising together, maybe other aspects of their English language become weaker. It will be very interesting to see the outcome of this research and where it leads.

The PIE: In general how do you see the language testing market evolving? It’s obviously very competitive isn’t it.

CB: It is, but it’s a huge and growing market. One exciting development is the quality agenda being pursued by the private sector. For example, several of the big pathway providers are starting to use Password to test students both pre-departure and at the end of their course.

“Testing pre-departure avoids testing students whilst they are jet-lagged and generally disorientated”

Testing pre-departure means Password reports can be used to place students in classes prior to arrival and avoids testing students whilst they are jet-lagged and generally disorientated during their first week. By testing again at the end of the course, the pathway providers are proving to their students, themselves and their university partners the progress that the students have made and the value of their course.

I don’t see Password as a hurdle to overcome in order to gain access to a course or other goal. I see it as an accurate, independent way of assessing where a student is on their educational journey, something which is necessary to both students and their institutions.

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