History of the IELTS

The English Proficiency Test Battery

The first major standardized test for international students intending to study at universities in the United Kingdom was the English Proficiency Test Battery (EPTB). Joint development of this assessment by the British Council and the University of Birmingham began in 1963, and the test was first taken by students in 1965. The EPTB focused on reading and listening skills with a set of three subtests: listening comprehension, reading comprehension, and reading speed. The EPTB did not evaluate writing or speaking, and this was a drawback that was fully understood by the test's creators, who hoped that innovative evaluations of reading and listening would make up for this weakness. The EPTB remained in existence until 1980.

The English Language Testing Service

During the 1970s, researchers sought to improve English language testing by introducing more practical and relevant elements into standardized assessments, which would be of greater use to university students. These ideas were promoted under theories of "communicative" learning and "English for specific purposes." The result of these efforts was the English Language Testing Service (ELTS), which replaced the EPTB in 1980. The ELTS was a set of six modules, five of which were subject-specific (life sciences, social studies, physical sciences, technology, and medicine). The sixth module was a "general academic" assessment. Logistical problems in test administration suppressed the overall number of ELTS test-takers (only 4,000 took the exam in 1981 and just 10,000 in 1985). Another problem with ELTS was the fact that its development had lacked international input.

The Early IELTS

The International English Language Testing System was developed during the 1980s and first administered to students in 1989. The creators and administrators were the British Council, Cambridge English Language Assessment, and the International Development Program of Australian Universities and Colleges. The latter organization gave test development an international perspective. The IELTS had a four-module structure (reading, writing, speaking, and listening) in two versions (academic and general training) that has been the basis of the test ever since. The speaking and listening modules were general, and there was only one version of these two sections. The reading and writing sections were intended to test these skills in academic disciplines that were as close as possible to a given student's intended course of study, and there were three available versions of these modules (science and technology, life science, and social science). The early IELTS therefore retained vestiges of the subject-specific ELTS subtests. The annual number of IELTS test-takers quickly surpassed the number of students who had taken the ELTS. By 1995, there were 210 test centers available worldwide, and about 43,000 students sat for the IELTS each year.

1995 Changes

The IELTS was substantially revised in 1995. The first change was the elimination of the field-specific writing and reading modules and their assimilation into a single module for each. Other important changes were administrative and structural. Scheduling the speaking assessment had been a significant challenge, but allowing students to take this portion of the test on a different day largely solved this problem. The reading and writing modules of the general training test were also aligned to those of the academic test in terms of timing and response length.

Further Revisions to the IELTS

Efforts to improve the IELTS have continued into the 21st century. In 2001, the speaking section was changed to include a smaller number of tasks, and examiner scripts and more specific scoring criteria were also integrated into the IELTS speaking paper. The assessment of the writing section was updated in 2005 to include four areas of evaluation (there were only three previously). Once a paper test only, the first computerized IELTS was offered in 2005. The IELTS Life Skills Test is a new version of the exam first administered in 2015. This greatly streamlined IELTS is a two-section assessment (speaking and listening only) that can be completed in a total of 16-22 minutes.

The IELTS Today

The IELTS is now taken by more than 2.5 students in over 140 countries annually, making it one of the world's most popular standardized assessments. It is available at over 1,100 test centers, and is widely accepted by universities and other organizations in all of the major English-speaking countries.