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STUDY ABROAD : Applying to University - Must read

Understanding English language test scores

English language tests are often an essential part of any study abroad journey. It's not always easy to get to grips with how these tests work and are scored. We've got an in-depth guide to help you out.

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If you’ve been researching and investigating studying abroad you’ll know by now that being able to demonstrate your English language proficiency is an essential part of the application process if you intend to study at an English medium university. Universities require you to submit scores from approved English language tests to show that you can meet the criteria needed for academic study.


One thing that can prove tricky is understanding how the test scores are calculated, how they are marked and by whom, and how to interpret those scores. We’ve investigated for you and taken a very close look at all the elements involved in English language test scores.


What do English language tests evaluate?


English language tests aim to assess your level of language ability in key areas that are needed for academic study and communication. The essential elements that are evaluated are:


  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Listening
  • Speaking


Language tests assess the level of your ability in each using graded scales based on an agreed-upon general standard.  The scores give universities an indication as to your language capability and if you would benefit from additional English tuition to reach the necessary level.


Being able to read English is central to successfully navigating your way through an English medium degree programme and for living in a country where English is the primary language spoken. It’s also important for the understanding of things like signage, documents, instructions and information.


During the course of your studies and day to day activities, you will need to be able to communicate ideas and concepts as well as respond appropriately in writing. Understanding how to write an email may seem simple, but it’s an essential skill.


Central to mastering any language is the ability to listen, interpret, understand and respond suitably, both in conversation and when evaluating what action to take when information or an instruction has been given.  Finally, it’s critical that you can express your feelings, opinions and ideas. This means having a grasp of English that includes vocabulary, pronunciation and syntax.


English language tests

How are English language test scores calculated?


The majority of English tests are structured to reflect the Common European Framework (CEFR), which is the international standard for evaluating English language ability. The CEFR banding is divided into three tiers comprised of six marked scales. The evaluative categories are basic user, independent user and proficient user.


IELTS score calculation


Different marks and scores are allocated for each section of the IELTS test according to your performance. All IELTS test scores are marked between zero and nine, with nine being the highest mark achievable. Remember that you can also be awarded scores of 0.5 during the evaluation, which represent the banding within category marking.  Scores that fall outside of the 0.5 band are rounded up, for example, a score of 6.75 is converted to seven.


For the IELTS test, you are marked using the four criteria of listening, reading, writing and speaking. The listening score is based on your responses to 40 questions. If you answer 39 or 40 of them correct you will get the top score of nine, while if you only average 50 per cent, answering 18 to 22 right, you’ll get the general minimum required for university application of 5.5.


This is similar to the reading portion of the test, with a top score of nine being awarded if you get all 40 questions correct. The reading portion of the test is broken down into two sections namely academic reading (AC) and general training (GT) reading, with the scoring differing slightly between the two. You’ll need to get more of the tasks and information correct on the GT to achieve a higher score than with the AC.


For the writing and speaking assessment components of the IELTS test you’ll be marked similarly out of nine, but with a focus on how you use language, from the fluency of speech to coherence in writing. Your overall test score is calculated by adding your scores for the four sections together and calculating the mean average which is then used by universities as an indication of your proficiency.


IELTS Indicator score calculation


The IELTS Indicator test is a live online test that evaluates your English language using the same framework as the paper-based IELTS test. You will be given an indicative banded score for each section, as with IELTS, and an overall mean average of your section score as a total mark.  


It is however not a substitute for an IELTS test, and although some universities have indicated their willingness to accept the IELTS Indicator for applications, you may have to undergo further English testing.


Duolingo score calculation

The Duolingo test assesses the same skills as the IELTS test but uses a different scoring scale framework. The test has four scoring categories:


  • 10-55 (poor/basic understanding and comprehension)
  • 60-85 (basic/fair understanding and comprehension, but with challenges)
  • 90-115 (Good understanding, speaking and communication)
  • 120-160 (Excellent understanding and comprehension)


A 5.5 IELTS score would be equivalent to that of an 85-90 score in a Duolingo test. Remember that the Duolingo test is adaptive, which means that the questions you are given are based on the performance of your answers. If you answer correctly the level of difficulty will increase. You will be scored using five-point increments, including for the video interview and writing sample.


TOEFL iBT score calculation

If you are taking the TOEFL iBT test your overall score is calculated using a combination of your section scores, of which there are four. Each of the sections namely reading, writing, listening and speaking are graded out of 30 marks each, meaning your total TOEFL iBT score is out of 120. The evaluation of each section uses a banded scoring structure with four categories for reading and listening and five for speaking and writing. For reading and listening:


  • Advanced (24-30)
  • High-Intermediate (18-23)
  • Low-Intermediate (4-17)
  • Below Low-Intermediate (0-3)


For speaking the bands are:


  • Advanced (25-30)
  • High-Intermediate (17-21)
  • Low-Intermediate (16-19)
  • Basic (10-15)
  • Below Basic (0-9)


Finally, for writing the scoring categories are:


  • Advanced (24-30)
  • High-Intermediate (17-23)
  • Low-Intermediate (13-16)
  • Basic (7-12)
  • Below Basic (0-6)


If you are aiming to use the TOEFL iBT test to apply to a university you will need a score of around 90, however, this does vary between institutions and you should always check with your prospective institution.

Online English test

How are the English tests marked?


IELTS test marking

Much will depend on which test you have taken as to how and by whom it will be marked. If you’ve sat for the IELTS exam, you’ll be evaluated by appointed examiners who are required to have specific qualifications as well as training.


An examiner will need to have an undergraduate degree in an appropriate field, an English language teaching qualification like TEFOL or TESOL, and English language teaching experience. All examiners are monitored and evaluated to ensure standards are adhered to.


IELTS test marking makes use of categories and category descriptions to score a candidate’s performance. Examiners are looking for specific indicators, for example, vocabulary, grammar, understanding and pronunciation.  These are then rated on a scale from non-user (1) to an expert user (9).


If you’ve opted to take the IELTS Indicator test, it is a two hour and 45-minute timed test for the listening, reading and writing sections with an additional time slot for the speaking portion, which generally lasts between 11 and 14 minutes. The structure of the test mirrors that of the IELTS academic version, including in content and form. Each IELTS Indicator test is marked by certified IELTS examiners who follow the same evaluation criteria as that of the IELTS test.


TOEFL iBT test marking

Marks and scores for the TOEFL iBT are evaluated a bit differently from that of the IELTS and IELTS Indicator tests. The test is marked according to a central scoring network, with the reading and listening sections scored using computer-generated marking. The speaking and writing sections of the test are evaluated using a combination of AI intelligence scoring and trained examiners.


Duolingo test marking 

Taking the Duolingo test means you’ll need to budget an hour for the exam. You’ll notice the test uses a different structure to that of other English tests, in that the questions are adaptive, changing in difficulty according to the answers you give. In addition, the speaking portion of the test is not evaluated by an examiner but forms part of the application you can send to a university.


The test itself is marked and graded by artificial intelligence, using short text, images and options like filling in missing letters and words. The score you receive will be a single overall mark between 10 and 160, with no section-specific scores. University entry requirements usually mandate a minimum score of 120 for acceptance, but you do need to check with institutions as to whether they accept the test or not.


How do I get my results?


IELTS results

Once you have completed a paper-based IELTS examination you will receive your test report form between 12 and 14 days after the test. This will detail your section and overall scores. If you have taken an IELTS computer-delivered test, results are made available within five and seven days.


For an IELTS Indicator test, you will need to wait seven days for your results and receive indicative scores for each section and indicative overall score. If you are unhappy with the result that you have received, you do have the option of sitting the tests again or querying the result if you feel it does not represent your performance.


TOEFL iBT results


For a TOEFL iBT test, the wait for your results will take in the region of six days. Your score is accessed online via the testing portal and is valid for two years after you have taken the test. You can, should you want to, also request a paper copy of the test results that are mailed to you about 12 days after the test. In some cases, you also have the option of having your score sent directly to a prospective university.


Duolingo results

The Duolingo English test has the shortest waiting time for results, with scores generally having been posted within 48 hours. However, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, this has been increased to five days from the time that you complete your test. You’ll receive your test results from Duolingo via email, which will be the address that you used when signing up for the test. You also have the option of logging in to your account to check your results.

English test scores

How do English language test scores compare?


There is admittedly sometimes a bit of confusion around how each of the English language testing scores compare to one another. This can be important for universities to be able to judge your relative proficiency and if you would be a candidate for additional English courses. One factor that does help is that all English tests use a similar template for evaluation, namely the CFER, and so a comparison is possible. We’ve got a summary of the overall score comparisons:








































If you are aiming to study abroad and will need to take an English language test for application, ensure that check with your preferred institution/s as to what scores they accept for admission and if at a later stage you will be required to undergo further language testing. You can consult a comprehensive list of institutions that are accepting the IELTS Indicator test on the IELTS website, the same can be done for Duolingo. The TOEFL iBT test is also widely accepted across the world.


If you want to find out more about entry requirements and search for your perfect course you can do so using our course matcher tool. You may also find our article comparing IELTS and TOEFL useful for your research. Don’t forget that you can also keep up to date with all of the latest developments, including English language testing by visiting our latest news page.

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