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Study abroad : Applying to University

How is the IELTS test developed?

The IELTS test is a perennial presence for international students. When preparing for the test it’s useful to understand how it’s developed. We explain the process.

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With the IELTS test often playing a central role in any university application, exploring all important aspects of the test can be helpful for your preparation. While understanding how the IELTS test is structured and marked is certainly a big part of getting ready for the test, knowing how the IELTS test is developed gives you greater insight into what to expect. We take you through what goes into constructing the IELTS test, from language specialists to standardisation.


Who creates and writes IELTS test questions?


IELTS draws on the expertise of specialist English language writers from around the world. Teams of writers are based in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and the USA. All writers are trained and qualified in Cambridge English Language Assessment. They have knowledge of different levels of proficiency, which helps in developing IELTS test questions.


These specialist writers are given test specifications, and the requirements for each of the IELTS test components – readingwritingspeaking and listening. Questions are then developed and refined in conjunction with the necessary sources and supporting material. Question writers ensure that questions are fair, standardised and flow logically in the context of the IELTS test.


Get more details about what to expect when taking the IELTS test.


Are the IELTS test questions edited?


As with any rigorous quality assurance process, IELTS test questions are evaluated, checked, and edited before being provisionally accepted for potential inclusion. Once writers have submitted questions, the content is analysed using key specifications including:


  • Topic
  • Level of language
  • Style of writing
  • Level of task
  • Focus of task


In some cases, questions or materials are revised by writers. Once revisions are made the questions are re-submitted for evaluation. If they pass this step, it’s on to the second editing phase for final confirmation of inclusion in pre-testing.


Discover the detail of how the IELTS test is marked and scored.


Is IELTS evaluated before students are tested?


The short answer is yes. This is what’s known as pre-testing. Once new test questions are compiled and approved, they are tested by representative groups internationally. Usually, test takers are those already preparing for the IELTS test.


The test results are then analysed and checked by Cambridge Assessment English via their Validation and Data Services. This helps to identify the difficulty of questions, the relative level of proficiency of test-takers and whether the new questions and materials work as expected. This is critical to establish if they are to become part of the IELTS test.


What are the benefits of taking the IELTS test?


How does IELTS ensure standardisation?


The standardisation of the IELTS test is an important component of pre-testing. Questions are verified to establish whether they accurately reflect the expected English language proficiency level. This is done via the comparison with established IELTS test questions and through representative group testing.


Listening and reading materials are given to groups of test takers of various levels and backgrounds. The measure of ability must be similar across all test takers, indicating that the questions are suitable. This process is called standards fixing. Only when new materials and questions pass this part of the process, will they be included in new IELTS tests.  


Get to grips with English language test scoring.


What about IELTS test construction and grading?


This part of IELTS test development is probably the one you will be most anxious about. The grading and scores can make a significant difference to your university application. There’s no need to worry. Preparing thoroughly for the test puts you in a good position, and the grading structure is closely quality assured by IELTS. This quality assurance includes the IELTS test verification service.


All four of the test sections are developed with key and established principles. These principles are critical in informing the grading and scoring. The elements used for test construction include:


  • Task type balance
  • Topics and genre balance
  • Range of language skills tested
  • The average difficulty of the test
  • Range of individual item difficulty
  • Range of cultural perspectives
  • Range of accents and voices in the listening section


IELTS test data is constantly reviewed and evaluated for accuracy, especially for grading and scoring. This quality assurance means that universities and institutions can endorse and accredit the test for entry requirements.


Armed with your new knowledge of how the IELTS test is created, checked, and quality assured you can feel confident when taking the test. You may want to further your research, and our guide to IELTS vs TOEFLhow to book an IELTS test, and the English language scores needed for top courses can help. You can also check what the English entry requirements for your desired course are by using our course matcher tool.


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