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Assessing English on the Global Stage

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This book tells the story of the British Council’s seventy-five year involvement in the field of English language testing. The first section of the book explores the role of the British Council in spreading British influence around the world through the export of British English language examinations and British expertise in language testing. Founded in 1934, the organisation formally entered the world of English language testing with the signing of an agreement with the University of Cambridge Local Examination Syndicate (UCLES) in 1941. This agreement, which was to last until 1993, saw the British Council provide substantial English as a Foreign Language (EFL) expertise and technical and financial assistance to help UCLES develop their suite of English language tests. Perhaps the high points of this phase were the British Council inspired Cambridge Diploma of English Studies introduced in the 1940s and the central role played by the British Council in the conceptualisation and development of the highly innovative English Language Testing Service (ELTS) in the 1970s, the precursor to the present day International English Language Testing System (IELTS). British Council support for the development of indigenous national English language tests around the world over the last thirty years further enhanced the promotion of English and the creation of soft power for Britain. In the early 1990s the focus of the British Council changed from test development to delivery of British examinations through its global network. However, by the early years of the 21st century, the organisation was actively considering a return to test development, a strategy that was realised with the founding of the Assessment Research Group in early 2012. This was followed later that year by the introduction of the Aptis English language testing service; the first major test developed in-house for over thirty years. As well as setting the stage for the re-emergence of professional expertise in language testing within the organisation, these initiatives have resulted in a growing strategic influence for the organisation on assessment in English language education. This influence derives from a commitment to test localisation, the development and provision of flexible, accessible and affordable tests and an efficient delivery, marking and reporting system underpinned by an innovative socio-cognitive approach to language testing. This final period can be seen as a clear return by the British Council to using language testing as a tool for enhancing soft power for Britain: a return to the original raison d’etre of the organisation.

Published: Jul 6, 2017

Section Chapter Authors
List of Tables Authors :
List of Figures Authors :
Acknowledgements Authors :
Section 1: Spreading Influence around the World through the Promotion of English, 1935-2016
1. A Global Promotional Agenda, 1935-2016: Exporting British Culture and Language . .
2. Developing English Language Testing around the World, 1982-2016: Exporting British Expertise . .
Section 2: Developing Academic English Tests for University Gatekeeping and Selection Purposes, 1954-2016
3. Testing the Academic English of Overseas Students Coming to Britain, 1954-1982: The British Council Interview and the English Proficiency Test Battery . .
4. The English Language Testing Service: The First Communicative Test, 1975-1989 . .
5. The International English Language Testing System, 1989-2016 . .
Section 3: Developing Language Tests for Other Purposes
6. Language Test Development in the 21st Century: The Return to a Product-Centred Approach . .
7. Conclusions and the Future . .
End Matter
Appendix 1: Overview of the Aptis Test Papers . .
Appendix 2: British Council Assessment Research Awards and Grants, 2013-2016 . .
References Authors :
Subject and Key Personnel Index . .


This book further establishes the recent history of English language assessment as an exceptionally well-researched area in the developing field of applied linguistic historiography. Weir and O'Sullivan have marshalled a wealth of primary sources in expert fashion, and their account provides a detailed demonstration of the innovative role the British Council has played in this area in the past and is playing now again.
Dr Richard Smith, Warwick University

The book provides a valuable historical account of the prominent role played by the British Council in the development of language testing in the United Kingdom over the last seventy-five years. The argument is supported by an impressive array of oral and written contributions from many of the key players that appear in the history and by a thorough review of the evidence available from governmental and institutional archives. The book should inspire other examination boards and test developers around the world to write their own histories and provides an important point of reference for this.
Professor Yan Jin, Director, National College English Testing Committee of China

Based on in-depth interviews, extensive document analysis and insider perspectives, this volume is a must for any language tester's professional library.
Christine Coombe, TESOL President (2010-2013)

The book provides a valuable evidence-based account of the development of English language testing in the UK over the past 75 years as viewed through the lens of the varying roles the British Council played in assessing English on the global stage in that period. The reader is taken on an intriguing journey through the personnel, policies, strategies, social contexts, testing theories, and validation models that have shaped the British Council’s contribution to English language testing. Thanks to books such as this, other language testing organizations around the world can appreciate the value of learning from the past and might be inspired to innovate for the future.
Dr Jessica R W Wu, R&D Program Director
Language Training & Testing Center, Taiwan

Language testing professionals, in the UK especially, are steeped in historiographical publications that acknowledge the leadership and achievements of our predecessors. This current volume by Weir and O’Sullivan makes a significant contribution to that tradition. It offers an insightful account of the British Council’s longstanding, global engagement in English language testing. Also the enquiry into the problems, politics, and solutions devised for creating, spreading, and maintaining the British Council testing programs offers lessons for modern-day practices.
Professor Micheline Chaloub-Deville, Professor, Educational Research Methodology, University of North Carolina at Greensboro. President-Elect International Language Testing Association (ILTA).