Examining and testing Language testing for immigration purposes

Examination as evidence of language skills
Examination as evidence of language skills | © Goethe-Institut/Bernhard Ludewig

The policy on migration has changed significantly in many European countries over the last ten years. In particular this has become apparent from the introduction of new and stricter rules and measures in the field of immigration and integration. Some of the changes affect the requirements of language skills for prospective immigrants and residents. Evelyne Pochon and Peter Lenz have analysed the current specialist literature on language testing for immigration purposes, and they summarise some of the results of their study here (Pochon-Berger & Lenz, 2014).

An increasing number of stages include language requirements from entry to the point of citizenship. The trend is for these requirements to increase, and more formal test procedures are being used; at the same time the range of language courses on offer has grown. With regard to implementation, significant differences can be identified from one country to another, for instance concerning when the evidence has to be submitted (on entry for the first time?), which skills are tested (including written?) and in particular the standards required. These are often quoted as levels on the European reference scale. Requirements vary depending on country and reason (obtaining an entry visa, residence permit, citizenship) between A1-minus and B1-plus, and it is interesting to note that similar grounds are often provided for differing requirement levels (current level details in Extramiana, Pulinx, & Van Avermaet, 2014).

Language tests as political instruments

One thing that stands out in the specialist literature on the subject of language testing for immigration purposes is the high proportion of studies fundamentally criticising the language requirements and examinations. Analysis of more technical aspects of the examination on the other hand is less common. The “critical language testers” (e.g. Hogan-Brun, Mar-Molinero, & Stevenson, 2009; Shohamy, 2006) highlight the changes in the field of language requirements from a “language and power” perspective. For instance they point out that the familiar ideology of “one nation – one language” is behind the requirements for being proficient in a (national) language – albeit without this being made clear. They identify an intention behind language examinations of regulating access to society under the cloak of promoting integration – or the attempt to preserve social cohesion by freezing out certain groups.

Criticism of validity

The content and validity of tests and examinations for immigration purposes received critical attention in the literature analysed (e.g. B. Balch et al., 2008; Krumm, 2007). One frequently criticised point is the use of the European reference level as a target. For one thing the reference levels apply to traditional foreign language learning for school, tourism and (qualified) work, so they do not relate closely enough to the communication requirements of most immigrants. Instead, requirements should be identified and used as a starting point for each test construct (in other words the skill level envisaged after a test). Furthermore they criticise the fact that requirement levels are frequently implemented by political authorities who do not have the requisite specialist knowledge. The result has often been requirements that are excessively high and generalised where differentiated requirement profiles would have been appropriate, and also the use of different languages in a multilingual day-to-day context should have been taken into consideration.

Test objective largely unsuccessful

The relationship between the generalised test objective, practical implementation and actual consequences of the examination was questioned several times (e.g. Strik, Böcker, Luiten, & Oers, 2010). Typically the objective of a language test to gain a residence permit is declared as being that it functions in conjunction with the preparation process to promote integration and/or that it is intended to provide information as to how well an individual can function in society as regards their language skills. The literature contains little to make you draw the conclusion that these claims are lived up to, but a fair amount to contradict them. The preparation courses are in some cases recognised as being useful, and sometimes they are perceived to be a waste of time – especially if people have to attend them at a later point (for instance prior to obtaining citizenship). On a positive note it has been observed that the obligatory course attendance enables women who otherwise cannot leave the home environment to make valuable contacts (e.g. Kiwan, 2008).
More of a deterrent than an integrative effect is attributed to the examinations themselves: statistics show that people do not aim to achieve such high levels of integration (e.g. citizenship) as frequently if they have to pass an exam to do so. Anyone who does not pass an exam experiences a setback in their integration attempts. It is also pointed out in the literature that certain uneducated groups are excluded because of the formal nature of the examinations.

Increased evidence of test validity

The literature published largely omits investigations of more technical aspects of language tests for immigration purposes. This is just a symptom of a wider problem: it has so far not been possible to establish a universal validation culture for language tests for immigration and integration purposes in which the quality of the examinations is ensured and documented on a continuous basis. In a European context the ALTE (Association of Language Testers in Europe) has been able to help ensure that fundamental quality standards are followed when it comes to development of the exams and standardising their implementation.

Exams require quality standards Exams require quality standards | © Bernhard Ludewig / Goethe-Institut
But a “validation culture” means more: first and foremost it implies that the contracting authority, test developers and providers accept their accountability where the test is concerned, and act accordingly. What this accountability means for the development and use of examinations is described in detail in validation frameworks. The model that is probably the best known and has been elaborated in the most specific terms is the one developed by Bachman and Palmer entitled Assessment Use Argument (AUA) (Bachman & Palmer, 2010). An in-depth line of reasoning is used to demonstrate that it is legitimate for a particular test to be used for its intended purpose, so for instance to help decide entitlement to a residence permit. The AUA model encompasses all factors in the development and use of examinations that might render the validity of a test result questionable. This includes alignment of the test itself with the test objective, the conditions under which it is implemented or even the decision processes for which there is a risk of partiality.
Providing evidence of validity also means transparency – particularly towards a qualified audience capable of assessing the soundness of evidence. If for instance it is claimed that a test offers a benefit for the integration of foreign language speakers, then this also needs to be demonstrated using impact studies; if exercise formats are supposed to be suitable for uneducated candidates, then proof must also be provided to show that this is indeed the case. The list could go on indefinitely. Overall our study has shown that there is still a great need for action when it comes to developing an awareness of validity and a validation culture in the field of immigration, a sensitive area in both political and human terms.



The article refers to the following study


Further reading

  • Bachman, L. F., & Palmer, A. S.: Language assessment in practice: developing language assessments and justifying their use in the real world. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Balch, A., Corrigan, M., Gysen, S., Kuijper, H., Perlmann-Balme, M., Roppe, S., Zeidler, B.: Sprachtests für gesellschaftlichen Zusammenhalt und Staatsbürgerschaft – ein Leitfaden für Entscheidungsträger. Council of Europe: Language Policy Division, 2008.
  • Extramiana, C., Pulinx, R., & Van Avermaet, P.: Linguistic integration of adult migrants: policy and practice. Draft report on the 3rd Council of Europe survey. Council of Europe, 2014.
  • Hogan-Brun, G., Mar-Molinero, C., & Stevenson, P. (Hrsg.): Discourses on language and integration: critical perspectives on language testing regimes in Europe. John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2009.
  • Kiwan, D.: A journey to citizenship in the United Kingdom. International Journal on Multicultural Societies, 10(1), 60–74, 2008.
  • Krumm, H.-J.: Profiles instead of levels: the CEFR and its (ab)uses in the context of migration. The Modern Language Journal, 91(4), 667–669, 2007.
  • Shohamy, E.: Language policy: hidden agendas and new approaches. London; New York: Routledge, 2006.
  • Strik, T., Böcker, A., Luiten, M., & Oers, R. van: The INTEC Project: synthesis report. Integration and naturalisation tests: the new way to European citizenship. Nijmegen: Centre for Migration Law, Radboud University Nijmegen, 2010.