You may be familiar with Duolingo as an app on your mobile phone for learning languages, including English. But the company recently launched an English test that it hopes will gain more acceptance, like the long-established TOEFL and IELTS.

TOEFL is an English test from the American organization Educational Testing Service. And the IELTS is owned by the British Council and others.

Duolingo was founded in 2011 by Luis von Ahn, professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, with one of his students. The company launched its Duolingo app a year later. It now offers learning courses for more than 40 languages.

Von Ahn grew up in the Central American country of Guatemala. The company said he was due to travel to neighboring El Salvador for an English test as he to apply at universities in the United States. Based on this experience, he wanted to create a test so that more students could prove their proficiency in English. And the Duolingo English test, DET, was released in 2016.

Jennifer Dewar works for Duolingo. She helps universities around the world understand how the Duolingo test can measure students’ English skills.

“For me, when I encounter the Duolingo English Test, I saw it as a real solution and as a real tool that could democratize access to the education of students around the world.

Dewar said hundreds of universities had already accepted the Duolingo test before the COVID-19 pandemic closed many testing centers. Since then, the number has grown to nearly 2,000 worldwide. The schools included universities well known as Georgetown, Caltech and Yale.

Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida is one of the schools that tests the Duolingo test. Patrick Kennell is director of the university’s Center for Intensive English Studies. He’s excited about the new ideas Duolingo has brought to English tests, but he’s not sure they measure English skills as well as traditional tests.

“Is this valid for what he says he measures? He asked. He also wonders if students who use their DET score to enter college will find it difficult to keep pace in class. “Only time will tell,” he added.

The test

The Duolingo test asks students to fill in the missing letters in groups of words, listen and choose whether the word they hear is English or invented, write short answers to questions, listen to a sentence and write it down verbatim. Applicants are also required to speak English on their computer microphone on several subjects. Most questions have a time limit. And the test, which costs $ 49, takes less than an hour.

Since the Duolingo test can be taken by a student at home, some universities are concerned that it is easy to cheat. But Duolingo says he’s still working to make sure the students can’t.

The company is also working on safety as it does not want a student with a good DET score to come to school and not be able to speak English as well as their score has shown.

Before the start of the online test, students must show their ID or passport and take a photo of themselves. If the two photos do not look the same, an examiner will question the test results.

Because the Duolingo test is adaptive, which means that the next question depends on the answer to the current question, no one has ever taken the same test as another person.

Basim Baig is Duolingo’s security chief. He said that no matter what the testing companies do, some people probably cheat and don’t get caught.

Most universities want students to achieve nearly 120 points in the DET. The best scores will be around 150. But even people who grew up speaking English don’t always score that high.

Burr Settles is one of the test creators at Duolingo. He said Duolingo aims to make his test a good one simulation of the way people speak English in real life.

“We want the test to be something… fun and natural to take, and at the same time, it is better to learn the language than to learn, for example, to take the test. “

In the year ending July 31, 2021, Duolingo said most applicants came from India, China and the United States.

Kennell compared the DET to the tests one might give an athlete. He said just because a football player can run fast or kick the ball doesn’t mean that player will be as good as Lionel Messi. The player must understand the game, work with his teammates and integrate into the team system.

Likewise, he said that a student should be able to read difficult books, listen to lessons, write articles and participate in class discussions in English.

IELTS and TOEFL, Kennell said, measure these skills better because they simulate what students will do in a college classroom.

Beau Benson works with international students who are considering coming to Northeastern University in Boston. The school has more than 10,000 international students each year. He believes the Duolingo test shows that a student can speak English well enough to take courses in the United States.

“We just need something that we can trust, something that’s going to be fast, something that we don’t need to question… that isn’t going to slow us down.” And Duolingo has been great in that sense.

Whatever the acceptance rate of the Duolingo English test, it has already had an impact. Earlier this year, ETS, the maker of the TOEFL, launched a shorter, less expensive test called TOEFL Essentials.

Kennell of Florida state, however, warned that no English test was perfect.

“The tests don’t tell the whole story, definitively. We have had students come to see us, they got 100 in the TOEFL, they start their classes and they can’t, they can’t do it. An English test is just one part of the package.

I am Dan Friedell.

Dan Friedell wrote this story for Learn English. Hai Do was the editor.

Have you taken the Duolingo English test or studied a language using one of their programs? Tell us in the comments section and visit our Facebook page.

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Words in this story

apply – v. formally request something (like a job, school admission, loan, etc.) usually in writing

meet – v. to have or experience or meet something

access – not. a way to be able to use or obtain something

valid – not. fair or reasonable

microphone– not. a device in which people speak or sing in order to record their voices or make them sound louder

simulation – not. something that is made to look, feel, or behave like something else, especially so that it can be studied or used to train people

definitively – adv. without a doubt : in a certain or clear way