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What is validity and why should your organisation care?





Date Published

23 January 2024

Validity: the extent to which a test truly measures skills needed in the real world.

Validity is one of the key indicators of a reliable test, but what do we mean when we say a test is ‘valid’? And why should universities and organisations assessing English language proficiency take note?

Validity – reliably testing the right skills

Validity is concerned with whether a test meets the needs of those who take it and the organisations that use the results.

For example, a driving test is intended to make sure that you can drive safely without causing danger for other road users. To do this, it needs to check whether you know the rules of the road, can control a car in a whole range of different situations, know how to react in an emergency, and so on. A driving test would be useless if it just looked at whether you could recognise important road signs and park your car neatly – it would not be a valid driving test, and the consequences could be extremely dangerous.

Institutions need valid tests of English proficiency

Similarly, if an English language test that was being used for higher education only covered a very limited range of skills, it would also be risky.

That’s why an English language test which aims to show that the learner has the skills they need for successful entry to university and other institutions, needs to cover a whole range of skills, including:

  • understanding lectures which may cover unfamiliar topics
  • taking an active part in seminars – explaining and defending opinions, and questioning other participants
  • quickly and efficiently reading large amounts of complex information to find the key points and compare this with information from other sources
  • writing clear, well-structured and accurate essays, papers and dissertations.

If the test provider can show that test takers have developed these skills, it’s fair to say that it is a valid test for students applying for courses which are taught in English.

IELTS is a valid test of English for international Higher Education

This is one more reason why IELTS Academic is the standard for higher education. The test covers all these skills in depth. In preparing for their IELTS Academic test, learners aren’t just cramming for the test, they are practising skills they will need throughout their education and working lives.

Each part of the IELTS Academic test covers skills which students need so that they can make a successful start on their courses. Unlike tests which only include very short, computer-marked tasks, IELTS Academic asks test takers to work with complex information, discuss their opinions, and write effective academic texts.

Without this in-depth assessment, there is no way of knowing if students have study-ready skills and are prepared to learn in English. Universities which accept shorter, simpler tests could find that they are admitting students who are not ready to start their courses. We provide detailed information showing how we cover these skills, and evidence that the skills are measured reliably.

It’s not just about the classroom

Of course, international students don’t spend their whole lives studying – they also need to live in the university community and wider host society, building relationships and interacting in a wide range of contexts. That’s why IELTS Academic also includes an extensive assessment of the ‘survival’ skills in English, which are crucial to positive educational experience and student retention.

…and our stakeholders agree

The real proof that IELTS is a valid test of English for international higher education is that universities and colleges know that they can rely on IELTS scores to help them select students with study-ready language skills. We’ve been around for more than 30 years, testing millions of learners every year, and more than 12,000 universities, employers, government agencies and other organisations formally accept IELTS scores.

Here is a just a small sample of the feedback we have had from universities in the United States, for example:

I value the science behind the way that the IELTS exams are scored. I feel that I can trust the scores to be an accurate reflection of the student's English language ability. When students meet or exceed our minimum score requirements, I feel confident that they have the English background to be successful in Graduate School.

Lindsay Gentile, Director of Admissions, The Graduate School, NC State University, North Carolina

IELTS is valuable because it has bands in different English language skill areas to give a more complete and reliable assessment of a student's English language proficiency as they enter higher education. In turn, this enables a university to provide a platform of customized support to a student by making use of stronger areas of English to build weaker ones and within the context of the intended discipline of study as well, helping retain students and customize support for English and academics as they enter the university system.

Kate Hellmann, PhD, Director of International Student and Scholar Services, Office of International Programs, Washington State University

IELTS provides an accessible tool for schools to best determine whether students have the English proficiency to be successful at your given institution. Students who prefer IELTS mention the time it takes to complete, as well as the ability to speak directly to an examiner. For admissions purposes, the ability to verify scores is also valuable for us.

Patriece Campbell-Palmer, EdD, Director of Graduate Admissions and Enrollment Management, University of Louisville, Kentucky

In my career, I have valued IELTS as they provide a test for students to show English proficiency in a way that is trusted and accurate. As an admissions professional for most of my career IELTS is trustworthy way to assess a student’s readiness for an English-speaking college environment.

Maggie Lucas Dean of College Counseling, Marlborough School, Los Angeles, California

That’s what we mean when we say that we are the standard for a reason.

If you would like to know more about validity, we recommend the excellent book Validity Theoretical Development and Integrated Arguments, by Micheline Chalhoub-Deville and Barry O’Sullivan.

Red pen on a white desk

The term validity is sometimes used to mean how long a certificate can be used for – what you might call its shelf life. Learn more about this topic.