Ethical Guidelines for the Use of the ELP Test

Submitted by the TESL Canada Testing Committee and accepted by the TESL Board, May 2008



The increasing number of individuals with mother tongues other than English entering Canada as students or immigrants has resulted in a corresponding increase of language proficiency test[1] use for decision-making purposes. The results of these tests are frequently used to either grant or deny access to institutions of higher learning, professions, or the country itself. Considering the impact that such decisions have on individual test takers’ lives, it is crucial to carefully examine and guide the ethical use of language proficiency tests.

Purpose of Guidelines

The TESL Canada Testing Committee has prepared a set of ethical guidelines for the use of language proficiency tests to support principled conduct of language test users. These guidelines are intended to establish a Canada-wide standard for the use of language proficiency tests and to assist language test users in reflecting upon the responsibilities, obligations, and values fundamental to their profession.

Who is a Language Test User?

These guidelines are directed at language test users who will be defined as anyone who is involved in the testing process including research, development, marketing, preparation, administration, and decision making. This therefore refers to individuals such as: test developer, ESL practitioner, language program administrator, admissions officer, policy maker, etc.

1. Responsibilities of a Language Test User

1 a) Language test users develop knowledge of the testing tool they use or intend to use. This includes:

  • Critically examining the information provided by the test developer
  • Critically examining independent evaluations and review articles on the test
  • Learning when and how the test was developed
  • Examining test specimens for overall content, sample questions, directions, answer sheets, and result reports

1 b) Language test users employ tests that reflect the current understanding of language and assessment. This includes:

  • Critically examining the theoretical framework on which the test construct, content, and tasks are based
  • Examining when the test was first developed and how it has changed since its inception
  • Avoiding using tests that are based on outdated models of language and assessment

1 c) Language test users improve the quality of language testing. This includes:

  • Employing tests that reflect current understanding of language and assessment
  • Examining alternative assessment methods that contribute to the improvement of test preparation, performance, and consequences
  • Educating other professionals and the public about the ethical use of language testing

2. Purpose and Validity of the Test

2 a) Language test users select tests designed with a purpose that corresponds to their needs. This includes:

  • Defining the purpose and population for which they intend to use the test
  • Examining whether there is a clear statement of recommended uses and a description of the population for which the test is intended
  • Examining how useful and meaningful the inferences drawn from test taker performance are, given the stated purpose of the test
  • Avoiding the use of tests whose stated purpose does not correspond to their needs

2 b) Language test users refrain from using tests for purposes not specifically recommended by the test developer. This includes:

  • Refraining from using language proficiency test scores as a standard for admission to institutions of higher learning or professions[2].
  • Refraining from making generalizations from the stated test purpose and population to purposes and populations other than those recommended by the test developer
  • Recognizing that using tests contrary to their intended and
  • Recommended purposes could prove harmful to test takers and seriously disadvantage them.

2 c) Language test users obtain and critically examine information on the validity[3] of language proficiency tests. This includes:

  • Obtaining empirical evidence on test validity from the test developer and other independent sources
  • Critically examining the extent to which the test can be used to draw inferences on future, context-specific language performance
  • Critically examining the correspondence between the test construct, content, and tasks and the Target Language Use[4] situation

3. Test decisions

3 a) Language test users avoid relying on a single standardized test score for decision making purposes. This includes:

  • Examining and recognizing additional sources of information on the test taker’s language proficiency
  • Examining alternative assessment methods that may be used to supply information on language proficiency
  • Recognizing that a high-stakes test situation may cause test takers to experience high levels of stress and anxiety that may impact their performance

3 b) Language test users refrain from using inflexible cutting scores for decision making purposes. This includes:

  • Critically examining how and why the standard for the cutting scores was determined
  • Critically questioning the use of inflexible cutting scores for administrative ease
  • Recognizing that neither language testers nor linguists have an empirical answer to the specific level of language that is needed to perform academically, professionally, or socially

3 c) Language test users consider the impact that test decisions have on test takers’ lives. This includes:

  • Examining the short and long term impact test decisions have on test takers’ lives
  • Evaluating the ethical consequences of making decisions based on a single language test score
  • Developing democratic ways of making test decisions involving test takers, educators, and administrators.

Reference / Sources:

  • Code of Ethics for ILTA
  • Code of Fair Testing Practices in Education
  • Code of Professional Responsibilities in Educational Measurement
  • American Educational Research Association (AERA), American Psychological Association (APA), & National Council on Measurement in Education (NCME) Standards for educational and psychological testing
  • Principles for fair testing practices for education in Canada

[1] A language proficiency test will be defined as a high-stakes test that seeks to determine the language competence of a test taker in order to predict language performance in a specific, real-life context.

[2] Language test developers emphasize that test results alone should not be used to make admissions decisions. In 1997 the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA) called upon Canadian universities to refrain from using the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) as a standard for university admission.

[3] Definition of validity set out in the AREA/NCME Standards document: “Validity is the most important consideration in test evaluation. The concept refers to the appropriateness, meaningfulness, and usefulness of the specific inferences made from the test scores. Test validation is the process of accumulating evidence to support such inferences” (p.9).

[4] Language knowledge or skill that is the target of the test; the language setting to which test performance will be generalized.