As most of you know, IELTS can be really important and for many people it is the key to their future. They fixate on IELTS because they need to get an overall band 7.0 in order to go to university, get their dream job, or simply move to a new country with their family.
I have been teaching IELTS for about ten years, and I have always said the same thing:
- IELTS is the best English exam.
I still believe that, even though there are some problems with it. I genuinely feel that a student’s overall IELTS grade typically reflects their actual English ability, and therefore it can help immigration officials, school administrators, and prospective employers around the world to know about a candidate’s level of English. Also, it is damn near impossible to cheat at IELTS! Although you regularly hear about fake certificates or question leaks, these are simply not true.
In short, although it is not perfect, the IELTS exam is pretty reliable, and usually works well to give a fair assessment of a student’s English level.
So… what’s the problem?
Today, I will explain some things I think are wrong with IELTS.
Your band score may be lower than it should be
From the perspective of employers, educators, officials, and so on, IELTS is great. If they see that you have a band 6.5 or 7.0, they know immediately how well you can speak English. This should not be underestimated in terms of importance.
With most English tests, there is the possibility of cheating. When I was living in China, cheating was endemic. It was almost impossible to get a class of students to do a test without cheating because it is such a huge part of the culture. They are incredibly inventive at finding ways to cheat, and so it is quite difficult for universities in places like England to trust the scores they receive from a Chinese university. Moreover, most students get help writing their university applications. That means they pay a native speaker (or a Chinese teacher) to write their entry essay or personal statement. All over the western world, schools find Chinese students arriving who can hardly speak a word of English. They simply cheated their way into acceptance!
The IELTS, on the other hand, is extraordinarily difficult to cheat. If your English is really about band 5.5 level, you simply will not be able to get a band 7.0. It is virtually impossible to cheat the system, and totally impossible to fluke a good result. Perhaps for the reading or listening exams you might get a little lucky… but the speaking and writing ones are certainly impossible to fluke.
(By the way, “fluke” means to get lucky.)
However, there is a problem. Although it pretty much impossible for students to get a higher score than they deserve, they can easily get a lower score. This, from my perspective, is a big flaw with the IELTS exam.
Let me explain:
I have often encountered students whose English level is very high. They can speak or write English at perhaps a band 8.0, but in the real IELTS exam they score much lower.
There are numerous possible reasons why your IELTS score might be lower than you expect:
- Nervousness causes people to do poorly, particularly in the speaking exam.
- A time limit puts pressure on a student that doesn’t fairly reflect their language skill.
- For the writing exam, a few errors in punctuation might be heavily penalized. (We’ll talk more about this later.)
- The examiner might be in a bad mood.
- The candidate may be sick that day, or suffering for some other reason.
There are more reasons, but my point is that there are certain things that can lower your score which, to my mind, do not mean your English is not good.
The writing exam is too hard
Almost every IELTS student agrees – the writing exam is really difficult. In fact, I wrote this long article about why it is so much harder than the other parts of IELTS.
Basically, the writing score is what normally trips students up. It is common to see scores like this:
To me, this makes it clear that there is a problem with the exam. In fact, other people agree with me. In December, 2018, the British Nursing and Midwifery Council changed its requirements for IELTS candidates from needing to score 7.0 in each section of the exam to requiring just 6.5 for writing! Obviously, they realize that even very talented people struggle to score 7.0 in writing.
I run an IELTS writing correction service, and I mark many essays every day. It always amazes me to hear these people’s stories about sitting the IELTS exam. They show me their essays, which are often really high quality, but then tell me that in the real exam they scored just 5.5! Sometimes a really, really talented student who should easily deserve an 8.0 will get just a 6.5.
It annoys me that the examiners are so strict because the marking rubric allows for small mistakes even at higher scores. I find it very frustrating that examiners seem to always give 5.5-6.5, even for the best students. It seems that they are reluctant to give higher scores… or maybe they just take a quick look and choose a common grade.
Perhaps this would be easier to understand if they did one important thing:
They should tell you why you got a low score!
When I mark my students’ essays, I always explain the grade that they got. I don’t just say “You scored band 6.5.” No, I tell them, “you got the following”:
|Coherence and Cohesion||7|
|Grammatical Range and Accuracy||6|
I think that it’s really important for a student to know this. If one part of their writing was much lower than the others, then they could work to fix this. However, if you only have a total score, then you know very little and will struggle to improve. Moreover, we don’t even know whether we did well on one Task 1 or Task 2, or if they were about equal.
The British Council and IDP really need to make some changes and I highly suggest that they begin by telling students their full grades. This would help build more trust in the system, and help students to continue their English learning after the exam in an organized and constructive way.
Are the examiners biased… or is the test biased?
A few weeks ago, I heard an interesting story from a doctor in England. He came from Pakistan originally, but had been living in England for twelve years, working as a doctor. His English was excellent, and he even had an English accent. He could converse freely with his patients and colleagues every day. In other words, he should have easily gotten a band 9.0 for speaking. If IELTS is a true test of your English abilities, people who can communicate perfectly in English should score the highest grade, right?
Unfortunately, he got a very low score. He was baffled, and he called me to ask for a mock test to find out his real English level. I gave him a full IELTS test and he answered every question perfectly, with excellent grammar and great pronunciation. He should have easily scored a 9.0.
So why did he get just a 6.5?
He told me that in part one of the exam, the examiner asked him, “Do you have any pets?” He said, “No, I don’t. I’m a Muslim and in my culture we don’t really believe in keeping pets in the house.”
The examiner immediately got upset. She acted very rudely to him for the rest of the test and finally gave him a very low score. It seems to me that she was offended by one of his answers, and became very biased towards him. I told him to get his exam remarked because another examiner would surely listen to the tape and change his score, but he said that this had happened too long ago.
The lesson here is that IELTS examiners are human and therefore they can make mistakes or have prejudices against people. Fortunately, the British Council and IDP are really good at solving these problems and making things fair, but sometimes these injustices happen. If it happens to you, I hope that you ask for a remark.
As for the test itself, I also feel it can occasionally be a little biased towards European students. The questions are written from a fairly western standpoint, and some questions may be troublesome to students from certain parts of the world. I sometimes see questions about a gap year arise in the writing or speaking test, but that is really a European concept, and most Asian or African students don’t do this. It seems to me that it’s unfair to expect them to answer questions on something so alien.
Some areas might be stricter than others…
A few days ago I was talking with one of my Chinese students, and she told me that IELTS test centers in China are much stricter than in other countries. I was dubious at first, but she went on to explain that she had friends who had done IELTS exams in both China and another country – Australia, England, and Hong Kong. In these other countries, the students had scored band 8 or above, but back in China they could only score around band 6. This is a huge difference! I was a bit doubtful, but she gave me a lot of information, and convinced me that the examiners in China are notorious for giving much lower scores than in other countries.
I do wonder if perhaps it is a cultural matter. Perhaps IELTS examiners in the UK have lived in this very politically correct, hyper-sensitive, multicultural society for all their life and learned to be completely open to other accents and ideas. On the other hand, in China maybe the examiners become fixated on Chinglish and Chinese mispronunciations of English words. These problems then seem greater to the examiner, who gives a much lower score.
Conclusion – Is IELTS Fair?
On the whole, I believe that IELTS is basically fair. It is the best test of English we have, and for most people it gives a very accurate assessment of their language skills. However, it seems clear to me that there are some problems with it that need to be addressed. Perhaps every speaking and writing exam should be marked by two examiners, with the final grade being the average score. Perhaps IELTS examiners should be routinely audited, and their grades altered to reflect their strictness. It would also be a good idea to refine the marking system to make it a little less ambiguous.
Let’s hope that somebody is paying attention to this article. 😅