John Pill

Connecting test and context: revising an English language admissions test at an EMI university in Lebanon

This paper reflects on a review of an established English language examination used for admission to an English-medium university in a non-English-dominant context. Studying how well a long-serving test sits in its current context may expose gaps and points of friction. These highlight how the test environment has changed and may also be taken as indicators of evolving conceptions of language use in the university community and beyond, and of theoretical and practical developments in the fields of language testing and applied linguistics. In practical terms, the review provided a baseline understanding from which to proceed with test revision.

English has been the medium of instruction at the American University of Beirut (AUB) for much of its 150-year history. Over three-quarters of the student population is Lebanese. From the 1960s to 1980s, experts developed an examination for applicants to AUB that was similar to the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) of that time. The English Entrance Examination has remained relatively unchanged since then. Concern about its effectiveness prompted a recent review and provided an opportunity to study the relationship between a test intended to assess one aspect of readiness to participate in tertiary studies through the medium of English and its broader multilingual reality.

The review found that current views of the construct of language proficiency and how it can be measured effectively are not reflected well in the existing test. In addition, data collection practices at the institution limit effective representation of the language profile of the student population. Current language practices at the university, in the region and in the globalized workplace where graduates subsequently seek employment are different from those assumed when the test was first developed. Participants in the review nevertheless maintained that an English test for admission was necessary, and a revised test is currently in development. The particular challenge of trying to reconcile the demands involved in creating a valid and defensible English test appropriate for this multilingual context of use may serve as an example of some of the tensions underlying practices at linguistically diverse tertiary institutions more generally.

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