Employers in English-speaking countries are increasingly requiring evidence from non-English speaking background professionals seeking employment in fields for which they are academically qualified that they can demonstrate a high level of proficiency in English, such as is represented by an IELTS band score of 7.0. The purpose of this study was to investigate the likelihood of non-English speaking background undergraduate students who had met the English language proficiency requirements for study at an Australian university on the basis of an Overall score of 6.5 in the Academic module of the IELTS Test with a 6.0 in Writing, being able to gain an Overall score of at least 7.0, with at least 7.0 in all components of the Academic version of the Test towards the end of their period of study.
Forty undergraduate students from three different faculties were recruited for the study. Using official IELTS Test results obtained by the students at the beginning of their study in Australia and towards the end, as well as interviews with most of the students, the study investigated patterns of improvement, as well as lack of improvement among the 40 students.
While most of the students in the study did achieve a higher score in the IELTS Test taken towards the end of their study in Australia, only a small number were able to achieve an Overall score of 7.0, with at least 7.0 in all components of the Test. The greatest improvements were made in Listening and Reading, while improvements in Writing and Speaking were relatively small and were not statistically significant. There was considerable variation among the students in the amount of improvement made, with a tendency for the younger students who had a larger time gap between the initial IELTS Test and the later Test being most likely to improve. Other factors such as gender and language background also appeared to have some influence.
The findings have relevance to a wide range of stakeholders involved with the IELTS Test. In particular, the findings caution both institutions and students against assuming that a student who achieves a score of 6.5 in an IELTS Test when entering university is likely to achieve a score of 7.0 after several years of study in the medium of English.