Testing for English competence?

On Facebook yesterday I posted with reference to Could you pass the proposed English test for Australian citizenship? The author of that, Misty Adoniou, is Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra. I was from 1990-2010 for much of the time a teacher of ESOL or ESL in a private language college, at a state high school, at an Anglican school, and as a private tutor, so I have had a professional interest. My post:

This is outrageous! If this had been the case twenty years ago my friend M, a very successful citizen indeed, would have failed, as would more successful citizens than you could poke a stick at, including quite a few Anglos born here! IELTS Band 6? A stupid suggestion — and as a retired ESL/ESOL I know that test well. “Aspiring Australian citizens will need to score a Band 6 on the general stream of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) test, the same score as those seeking entry to Australia’s top university” This requirement MUST NOT pass. Stupid Dutton!

I am marginally less excited this morning, but not much…

The Australian government has been proposing among other things a strengthening of the English Language requirements for those aspiring to be Australian citizens. (That link to a PDF currently works, but typically as with any government discussion paper could disappear at any time.)

English language is essential for economic participation and social cohesion,
and there are certain standards that must be met, especially for those
who are seeking to become a permanent resident or Australian citizen.

There is strong public support to ensure aspiring citizens are fully able
to participate in Australian life, by speaking English, our national language.
Aspiring citizens are currently required to possess a level of ‘basic’ English
to meet the requirements for citizenship. This is tested when an applicant
sits the Australian citizenship test.

Aspiring citizens will be required to undertake separate upfront English
language testing with an accredited provider and achieve a minimum
level of ‘competent’.

People currently exempt from sitting the Australian citizenship test, for example
applicants over 60 years of age, or under 16 years of age at the time they
applied for citizenship or those with an enduring or permanent mental
or physical incapacity, will be exempt from English language testing.

The test most people will confront is the internationally respected  IELTS test.  I have worked with this test in the past. This SBS page summarises well:

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton also outlined in a press release that the English test that applicants will be required to pass involve will involve elements of reading, writing, listening and speaking. This is thought that it will therefore make it equivalent to IELTS level 6.

What does “competent” mean here?

Let’s see how the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is scored as a comparative benchmark to define a “competent” English level.

IELTS measures the language proficiency of people who want to study or work where English is used as a language of communication. The test assesses areas including listening, reading, writing and speaking – in less than three hours.

According to the IELTS official site, there are two types of IELTS tests: Academic and General Training.

The General Training type, which focuses on basic survival skills in broad social and workplace contexts, is normally considered easier than the Academic type, and is already a requirement for migration to Australia.

It is therefore more likely to assume that Government’s citizenship test will look at the standard of the General type….

Currently, for international students in Australia hoping to study full-time in a recognised education institution, they need need an overall IELTS score of 5.5 for Academic type.

However, most universities set their English proficiency requirement at an overall score of 6.5. For University of Sydney, many faculties and courses actually require an overall band score of 7.0 or better with a minimum score of 6.0 in each of the components.

It is therefore quite hopeful to assume that the new English requirement shall not be a significant obstacle for those young people who successfully manage to accomplish a degree, migrate and live in Australia before applying for citizenship.

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Labor is exaggerating when they say the test is “university level”, but I still feel the proposal, even if it refers to Band 6 on the General IELTS in listening, reading, writing and speaking, is setting the bar unreasonably high. As Misty Adoniou says:

I prepared students for the IELTS test when I lived and taught in Greece. They needed a score of 6 to get into Foundation courses in British universities. It wasn’t an easy test and sometimes it took them more than one try to succeed.

My students were middle class, living comfortably at home with mum and dad. They had been to school all their lives and were highly competent readers and writers in their mother tongue of Greek.

They had been learning English at school since Grade 4, and doing private English tuition after school for even longer. Essentially they had been preparing for their IELTS test for at least 8 years.

They were not 40-year-old women whose lives as refugees has meant they have never been to school, and cannot read and write in their mother tongue.

Neither were they adjusting to a new culture, trying to find affordable accommodation and a job while simultaneously dealing with post-traumatic stress and the challenge of settling their teenage children into a brand new world.

I strongly suspect that if I were to spring a battery of IELTS tests on the usual clientele at City Diggers in Wollongong a rather alarming number — all of them citizens and many born here, including “Anglos” — would fail to make Band 6 in one or more of the skill areas. Of course they are all nonetheless competent as citizens.

A curious justification for tightening English is some apparent connection to resisting terrorism:

Recent terrorist attacks around the world have justifiably caused concern
in the Australian community. The Government responds to these threats
by continuing to invest in counter-terrorism, strong borders and strong
national security. This helps to ensure that Australia remains an open,
inclusive, free and safe society.

In the face of these threats, there is no better time to reaffirm our
steadfast commitment to democracy, opportunity and our shared values.

The English Test is after all part of that package, and on those grounds alone I feel Labor has been justified in sending it back to the drawing board.

As far as I know I have not met any terrorists, but I have been up close and personal with a well-known member of  Hizb ut-Tahrir, as I recount here and here.

This goes back to 2005 and a particularly interesting if controversial event. On the day I was not there, as I had to attend a meeting of ESL teachers at Erskineville – or was it Arncliffe, one of the last such meetings for me as I retired the following year. But I did know all the participants at The Mine end, and I posted on it at the time and the following year. See Salt Mine and Islamic Students; 7.30 Report: The Mine and the Islamists; The Mine and the Islamists: cause for concern?. On Floating Life Apr 06 ~ Nov 07 there is also a major entry from April 2006.

What I found yesterday was a video on YouTube of the complete 2005 Seminar [still there at 9 Oct 2014] referred to in those entries. The controversy centred on the guest speakers, Sheik Khalid Yassin and Hizb ut-Tahrir’s Wassim Doureihi. These people would fall in one of Michael Burleigh’s inner circles (see previous entry) but not necessarily, of course, into the innermost circle. While I had concerns about the Mine students involved, I very much doubt they would have even considered the innermost circle – quite the opposite in fact. (I also refer to these students in my Cronulla 2005 posts.)

05shs

Stills from the video.

Mine students often show initiative, of course, and these particular students were very bright indeed and participated in all aspects of school life to the full. An earlier generation some ten years before promised they would have Barry Crocker and Kamahl at their farewell assembly. We thought they were joking, but on the day, there they were! The Tamils were especially happy. So were the office ladies.

What I can say is that Wassim and company would have had no trouble passing IELTS at a very high level, so what is Mr Dutton actually doing?

peterdutton_potato_0
You know who…

Related: it is worth taking the challenge of this article from 2015. And also along the lines we are freaking out rather more than we should, read Londoner Stephen Liddell from 10 June 2017: Talk of Terrorism is all hype. He posts this, figures relating presumably to the UK:

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Do check my other posts tagged “terror”.

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3 thoughts on “Testing for English competence?

  1. i haven’t been following this English testing thing in detail but the fundamental point I would make is that there are many people for whom there are good reasons they should be accepted as citizens who may not have good English – for example, spouses and parents who have become permanent residents already. That is all the more important now that we are chipping away at the security of residence of permanent residents. If we want to have an English test for employment-based candidates for permanent residence, that is quite a different thing from imposing an English test on candidates for citizenship.

  2. Pingback: Aspergers, English-speaking and Senator Revenant | Neil's Commonplace Book

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