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Testing the teachers

At TU Delft, it’s not just the students who sit for exams. In April, 24 staff members, including assistant professors, senior faculty and even some managerial staffers, sat for a test. Spread out over a few days, the test was divided into two rounds and was conducted by a team of experts. Sounds daunting? For some of the professors, it was. For others, it was an interesting process to gauge their English language skills.

Called the English Language Test, the test is conducted on campus by a dedicated, accredited department. It is mandatory for all postgraduate teaching staff and all new appointees are required to take the test within the first year of their employment.

Why test the teachers?
The test is closely linked to the overall internationalisation of the university. Around 2006-2008, almost all MSc programmes at TU Delft began being taught in English. With more international students gravitating to the Netherlands and a wide group of staff from the world over, English became the second official language of the university. In keeping with that, the university set certain requisite standards for academic teaching staff to ensure that students got the best quality education from an international group of teachers.

"Back then the board of governors of the university decreed that all teachers needed a high level of English, at least a high-level C1 as per the Common European Framework for Reference (CEFR), to be allowed to teach MSc courses. Ideally, the university would like 50% of the teachers to be C2, which is the highest grade allotted per CEFR ranking," said Pauline Post, director of the university's language centre, ITAV (Instituut voor Talen en Academische Vaardigheden).

TU's Language Centre
Initially, these tests were conducted in Leiden, but in June 2011 the university set up a language test of its own, to be conducted under the aegis of ITAV. Besides English language testing and classes, the centre also teaches Chinese, Spanish, French, Italian and Dutch. At the English centre, there are seven examiners, each with a degree in Linguistics or English and teaching experience. "As the university took over the testing, we asked one of the world's leading language testing experts, Dave Allan (the founder of the Norwich Institute for Language Education), to come in and train the teachers. Each and every one of us went through intensive training at the time. And, we invite him every year to ensure that the testers are regularly tested too," said Liza Berry, who runs the English Language Test for Lecturers at ITAV. In 2012, TU Delft received formal accreditation from NILE for the Assessment of Spoken English, making it the first and, so far, only university in the Netherlands to have the recognition. Besides conducting the test, the ITAV communications department offers courses on academic presenting, scientific writing, debating techniques, among other things.

Open to everyone
The English Language Test is conducted five times a year and up to 24 people can take it at a time. While it is mandatory for all teaching staff, including PhDs who take tutorials or lectures, managerial and support staff can also opt to test their language skills. The test is not just for Dutch staff; TU's international employees from non-English speaking countries also have to take the test. There have been candidates from Korea, Spain, Russia, Chile, Iran and several other countries. "We are very cognizant and appreciative of international differences. Accents are not a problem, we only look at how well they can communicate," said Berry. In case anyone scores below a C2 or a high-C1, they can take some classes at the language centre and people who score B2 or lower ("which is rare," said Berry) are guided to outside centres for further improvement.

Testing can be tricky
The test for teachers has been carefully designed keeping in mind the kind of candidates that take it. Teachers are assessed on pronunciation, range, accuracy, interaction and communicative effectiveness over two rounds. The first round is a 45-minute online test that covers grammar, listening, vocabulary and reading. The next one is a spoken section, a 15-minute interaction during which candidates answer general questions, describe some photographs and discuss a few basic concepts of their subject. "There is an interviewer who talks to the candidate and an assessor who sits aside. Candidates are often apprehensive about it and some are even surprised by how pleasant the experience is," said Berry. Specialised tests had to be developed to fit this framework. "You have to be aware of the different range of skills involved when it comes to people working at a postgraduate level. It's also important to make sure that the test tasks are appropriate to that repertoire of skills," said Dave Allan, who has worked on creating similar testing frameworks around the world. The testing team at TU Delft continues to meet with Allan annually "to analyse the previous year's results and ensure continuing inter-rater reliability so that the test remains fair for all who take it and remains reliably linked to the CEFR."

Over the past four years, Allan has noticed a change in the attitude of staffers at TU towards testing. "Initially there was an understandable reluctance to being graded and only people really confident came in for the testing." As people understood the test and the merits of it, candidates came in more willingly.

So, how do the candidates feel?
Sander Hartjes, an assistant professor at the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering, also studied at TU Delft. He has noticed a marked difference in the aerospace faculty over the years. "When I was at TU we had a lot of professors who spoke poor English. Now, a significant part of our staff is international, from various countries including Portugal and Ukraine. All the education in our faculty is in English and within the faculty we hardly ever speak in Dutch. Given how international our students are, it's good for the university to have teachers with a high level of English," he said.

Joyce Kooijman, a teacher in the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management, took the test during the March-April session. "I did it voluntarily as I was already giving lectures in English and wanted to see what my level was. I was apprehensive at first, not about English, but because it had been a long time since I'd taken any test whatsoever." Both Kooijman and Hartjes said their test scores were something they would add to their resumes.

Asked if there's a pattern to the kind of candidates that score well, Berry said the results are sometimes surprising. "There are many older people for whom the test was a breeze, and enough younger colleagues who find it more difficult. Many biases fly out the window when you start to test, which actually makes it more enjoyable than some would think."

Going global
English-language testing is not just limited to the Netherlands. In 2013, the Belgian government conducted a test for 3,000 university teachers and between 10-20% of them reportedly failed. Called the Interuniversity Test of Academic English (ITACE) for Lecturers, the test was created in collaboration with several Belgian universities, including KU Leuven and University of Antwerp. ITACE also follows the CEFR scoring system. "They have also invited ITAV to be a part of the brainstorming session on it. The news about our training and testing is spreading." said Berry. Several Italian universities have also approached NILE for similar tests. With the cost of higher education in England increasing and more students looking at travelling to the continent to study, having teachers proficient in English increases a university's attractiveness. In the past decade, European institutes have started collaborative projects and research with China and several countries across South America, making it important for staffers at all levels to have a good grasp of the language. At the same time, a number of universities and cultural centres from South American countries have approached NILE. "With the increasing pace of globalisation of education, English is being seen as the lingua franca. The Netherlands has been an interesting front runner in this regard," said Allan.