‘Cultural bias’ fears over English language university test

A Khalifa University lecturer heard many complaints from students about the International English Language Testing System so she decided to study it to find out if the complaints were valid or not.

Dr Hilda Freimuth, of Khalifa University, conducted two studies into the English tests after hearing complaints from students over a 10-year period. Christopher Pike / The National
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ABU DHABI // Emirati teenagers perform poorly in a crucial test of their proficiency in English because they believe the test has an inbuilt cultural bias and because school teaching methods do not adequately prepare them, a new study suggests.

In the International English Language Testing System, or IELTS, pupils from the UAE rank lowest among the main 40 countries where the test is taken. The system tests English skills in listening, reading, writing and speaking.

Dr Hilda Freimuth, a senior lecturer at Khalifa University, conducted two studies into the tests after hearing complaints from students over a 10-year period that the test topics were unfamiliar to them and that most of the questions did not relate to their lives.

The results of her most recent study are published this month. Dr Freimuth concludes that pupils are not adequately equipped with the critical thinking, graph literacy and reading skills needed to succeed in IELTS.

“The IELTS exam doesn’t fit into their world, it’s not written by people from their world, so they’ll run into this time and again,” she said.

“The other part of the bias is that the tests don’t really talk about this part of the region, at all. The topics aren’t related to them or to do with anything here.”

There is no pass or fail in IELTS. The system rates students on a range of bands, from 1, a non-user of English, to 9, an expert user.

To enter one of the three federal higher education institutions – Zayed University, Higher Colleges of Technology or United Arab Emirates University – students must reach at least band 5. Some schools, such as Khalifa University, require a minimum of 6.

In 2014, the worldwide mean score was 6 for women and 5.8 for men. In the UAE, the mean score for all students was 4.9.

In the reading and writing sections of the test, the average score in the UAE was 4.6.

“The band score is very low, indicating students in the UAE sitting the exam have a modest ability, at best, to write academically,” Dr Freimuth wrote in her 2012 study of the 4.7 average score that pupils earned then.

In her latest study, Dr Freimuth analysed 24 IELTS exams in which 88 per cent of one of the writing tasks required pupils to analyse graphs, tables or charts to write an essay.

Based on the results of the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment, in which UAE pupils came 40th out of 44 countries for problem-solving skills and scored below the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average in reading, maths and science, Dr Freimuth wrote: “It is safe to say Emirati students from government high schools will have trouble interpreting” the data from the graphs to properly complete the essay task.

Dr Freimuth also found that pupils were likely to come across “a topic related to social sciences and geographical locations related to the West”, which she argued “could easily lead to student perceptions of cultural bias”.

The exam, which is owned by the British Council, IDP: IELTS Australia and Cambridge English Language Assessment, is distributed in the UAE by the British Council and IDP Australia.

Stephen Carey, the British Council’s IELTS global marketing manager, said the test was “fair, accurate and reliable”.

“Through careful test design, test development and test trialling, the IELTS partners are able to create tests where test score outcomes are not affected by cultural and background knowledge,” he said.

“It has been developed to ensure test consistency and fairness to all test takers regardless of their culture or where the test is taken.”

Dr Freimuth acknowledged that the IELTS was “a very good test”, but said it was designed to test the English skills of a foreign student seeking to study in an English-language, western country.

“The exam itself is a solid exam, so if they’re going to use it for this purpose then they’re going to have to train the students properly and give them the skills needed to do well on the exam.” The Government was already moving in that direction, making this year the Year of Reading being one example, she said.

“It’s not the students’ fault that they’re struggling on it. There are all sort of factors at play, cultural, societal, educational and it’s not a negative thing,” said Dr Freimuth. “So the Government needs to decide: are we going to continue using this test or are we going to replace it with something more culturally appropriate?”

Dr Natasha Ridge, executive director of the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, said: “There are also a lot of complaints about students’ literacy levels in Arabic, too, so while there may be some contexts that students find confusing, it is my view, from what I have observed, that students very rarely have to write extended pieces of writing, in English or Arabic, under exam conditions.

“It is this lack of preparation that I think is the main reason why Emirati students do not perform so well in IELTS or other tests of writing. More creative writing practice in schools, in both languages, would be tremendously helpful.”