Putting IELTS on a pedestal abets educational inequality

July 14, 2023 | 03:23 pm PT
Lang Minh Researcher
"Our commune has a foreign teacher now, guaranteeing a 6.0 IELTS score," my uncle told me one day.

The movement of learning IELTS for university admission has spread to my hometown, a poor commune in Nam Dinh Province in northern Vietnam.

My uncle’s family is not rich, but could afford the IELTS classes with a native speaker, while his neighbors had to borrow money for that.

My nephew took the A1 exam combination of math, physics and English. Since 5.5 in IELTS is equivalent to a perfect score (10) in the English high school graduation exam, he could focus on just math and physics after taking the IELTS test.

That is the formula for securing college admission as competition for top public universities grows increasingly fiercer.

In 2023 the National Economics University received around 11,000 applications with international English certificates instead of high school graduation grades, 220 times up from 2017.

Of them, 70% had an IELTS score of 6.5 or higher, with 7.0 being the common score.

The university’s statistics show that students with an IELTS certificate graduated with higher average scores than the rest.

Candidates with the English certificate are assessed by the university as "capable of learning and achieving good results in the training process."

This is not an isolated instance. Many universities have over the years, using similar statistics, tried to show there is a correlation between doing well in IELTS and in university.

This inference reminds me of a classic problem in statistics: the confusion between causality and correlation, also known as the "Mozart effect."

The New York Times once wrote: "Researchers have determined that listening to Mozart does indeed make you smarter."

The impact of this research was so great that in 1998 the governor of Georgia [State in the U.S.] decided to give away a free classical music CD to every newborn.

Fathers and mothers start buying classical music for their children to hear from a young age, sometimes when still in the womb.

However, the original research only stopped at the assertion that Mozart’s music helps students think better in the short term and there is no long-term relationship between classical music and academic thinking.

Why does society tend to rush and rejoice when it comes to connecting two unfamiliar variables like listening to classical music and better academic performance?

According to statisticians, listening to classical music and doing well in school is only related, i.e., families that let their children listen to classical music often have higher academic scores, but listening to classical music is not responsible for that.

The key to decryption is the existence of a hidden variable. Families in a good financial situation will invest more in education, buy more reference books and strive to make their children study more. This leads to a higher academic performance. Those families are also more likely to listen to genres like classical and chamber music.

But classical music is an excuse compelling enough to conceal the educational inequalities resulting from the differences in families’ financial status.

Back to IELTS scores. I have yet to find a well-regarded study that confirms a positive causal relationship between IELTS test results and academic performance at university.

If it were true, IELTS preparation centers would have gone to town promoting this and all universities would be demanding IELTS certificates.

The phenomenon hides a variable that is occurring but not being discussed: the "home economy."

This statistical blind spot also caused a great debate in the U.S.: whether to maintain the use of standardized test SAT as a criterion for admission to universities since wealthy families could spend a lot of money on test preparations for their children to get higher SAT scores than low-income families.

Opponents of the test argue that having a high SAT score is tantamount to saying, "I'm rich, hire my kids."

Author Kathryn Paige Harden wrote in The Atlantic: "The income-related disparities we see in SAT scores are not evidence of an unfair test. They are evidence of an unfair society."

Throwing away this measurement does not fix the injustices in children's educational opportunities, just as throwing away thermometers won't change the weather, she said.

At the end of the article, she posed a conundrum: Focusing entirely on the "deserving" students in the entrance exam ignores the crucial question of the principles of designing a national contest: What do we, as a community, owe to students who don't win the academic race, or don't benefit from this battle for the throne?

While English is an important tool and educational inequality is a difficult problem to solve in the end, schools, while prioritizing the use of IELTS for admissions, should not exalt the effects of IELTS to conceal a social problem that has no final solution.

*Lang Minh is a researcher. The opinions expressed are his own.

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