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Dr Louise Kennedy, a veterinarian from Ireland- a native English speaker says she was shocked when she could not get enough points in a computer-marked English oral test.
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9 Aug 2017 - 1:59 PM  UPDATED 11 Aug 2017 - 4:16 PM

A native English speaking veterinarian’s failure to get enough points in the English oral test has reignited the debate on whether various English tests for determining the English language proficiency are flawed.

Dr Louise Kennedy hails from Ireland and holds two degrees obtained in English, has been working in Australia for two years as an equine veterinarian.

Earlier this year, she decided to apply for permanent residency as an equine vet- a skill that’s in short supply in Australia.

However, she failed to get the minimum score in the English oral test component required for her visa.

"It was such a shock," she tells SBS World News. "It's the only exam I’ve ever gone into not being nervous about.

“It's taken about two-and-a-half years to get to this point because as a vet you've also got to prove your skills as a vet, so I’ve done all of that – that takes about two years – and then to not get it from English is just so frustrating."

Dr Kennedy undertook the computer-based Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic), which is one of the five approved English tests by the Australian Government’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

PTE is the only test that uses voice recognition technology to assess the oral English component of the test and then a computer program gives out the score. Dr Kennedy says she believes the computer program is flawed.

Sasha Hampson, the head of Pearson in the Asia Pacific, says the technology it uses is sound.

"Comparing data published by some of the other major English tests recognised by government bodies and Higher Education Institutions, PTE Academic has the highest reliability estimates for both the overall score and the communicative skills scores based on the SEM of all the major academic English tests," she says.

However, the incident has reignited the debate about the efficacy of such tests in assessing the English language proficiency of different individuals.

Neha, an Indian international student told SBS Punjabi she attempted IELTS (International English Language Testing Systems) exam- one of the oldest and most popular, 21 times and yet has failed to get the minimum score required for her permanent residency.

She needed a score of 7 bands in two and 8 in the other two modules of the test in order to be eligible for permanent residency as an early childhood teacher. But every time she attempted the test, she missed the mark by a whisker in writing but scored well above the required level in the rest of the three modules.

“I have so far spent approximately $8,000 on tests and coaching but every time I have fallen short by a very small margin, something that I fail to understand is how come I haven’t been able to improve my writing despite having improvement in all other areas,” Neha told SBS Punjabi.

"It's so stressful. I feel they are harassing me. I get bands in every module except writing."

She believes something isn’t right the way IELTS tests are marked.

"When I have studied here, completed two masters degrees, taken this test a number of times and improved in all areas, and I am still given the same score in writing." she said. 

IDP (International Development Program), the co-owner of IELTS, said it has introduced feedback on results in Australia last year which gives a brief explanation of the band score and a general advice on how to improve the test performance. It also says test takers can utilise tools, such as free face-to-face masterclasses, a 25-hour free online preparation course.

Every year, millions of people take these tests to prove their English proficiency in order to migrate or studying in English-speaking countries, such Australia, New Zealand, UK and Canada.

However, the alleged opacity in the marking of these tests,  much to the chagrin of the test takes, has led to much controversy.

Dr Kennedy, in the meanwhile, will be applying for a bridging visa in order to stay with her Australian husband until she gets her spousal visa.

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