Language test created at Carleton still going strong more than 20 years later

Wendy Fraser (left) manages the Canadian Academic English Language (CAEL) test. She is with Janna Fox, a Carleton faculty member, who created the test 23 years ago. (Kristy Strauss Photo)

Some call it the little test that could. Others say that it’s the best-kept secret of a Carleton success story.

The Canadian Academic English Language (CAEL) Assessment was developed more than 20 years ago at Carleton and by Carleton people and is now being used at universities across the country and around the globe.

But it was born in the 1980s out of a need to standardize the existing English language test given to students requiring a proficiency test as part of their admission to Carleton. They were students who indicated that English was not their first language and who didn’t have at least three years post-secondary education in an English-speaking high school.

At that time, the university had a test but as Carleton’s international student population grew, it realized that the existing test didn’t seem to measure and capture a student’s full comprehension of what they actually encountered in their first year.

“They may have had a blatant understanding of the grammar that was needed for English and they might know the vocabulary, but when they got into the classroom, they couldn’t participate in the discussions, they couldn’t deal with the kinds of writings that were necessary, the variety of writing and the types of writing. And they were unable to keep up with the amount of reading that was needed in a first year course,” says Wendy Fraser, manager of the CAEL office at Carleton.

“It (the existing test) really didn’t represent the construct of English in an academic setting … and a lot of universities were finding the same thing. People were submitting these high scores but they were still floundering when they were coming into the classrooms. So, what they needed was something that was more representative.”

Enter Janna Fox and a small group of researchers.

“We pulled together a research study of exactly what students do when they engage in that first term of study. It was a full-scale research study,” explains Fox, an associate professor in the School of Linguistics and Language Studies and the principal developer of the CAEL.

“We were trying to characterize activities, events, degrees of understanding, language, interactions; it was basically an ethnographic study of engagement, initial engagement in academic work because students come in from high school and they may be studying sociology but they are not sociologists, so what do they need, what skill set, what strategies, what languages, what cultural understandings do they need in order to engage. So that’s where we started.”

Over the next few years, Fox and her team collected empirical data from a variety of programs – engineering, biology, anthropology, geography – in order to develop a tool that would truly test a student’s knowledge.

“It could also be used on students that could be admitted but clearly didn’t have the appropriate level of language, so that we could assess them based on the Carleton test and then place them at an appropriate level of EAP (English for Academic Purposes) so that they could develop,” explains Fox of the test’s applications.

While Carleton was excited about it’s new standardized test – because it was based on solid research – the rest of the testing world wasn’t so sure.

Fox recalls presenting the test at a testing research colloquium at Princeton in the early ‘90s and getting a lukewarm reception because Carleton was testing in a way that none of the established English-language proficiency tests were.

“We had a battle royale to argue that you could actually test in a different way and that the testing could be valid. But we had a rich, fully-defined, fully developed construct that we were working from which is a requirement for testing. We had a full package of specifications and we had it through empirical evidence,” says Fox.

It wasn’t until a couple of years later when Fox was asked to present at an international symposium on testing that there was a turning point. Among the several hundred who heard Fox’s presentation were representatives from Ryerson.

“After the presentation, they came up and they said: ‘We want this test. We need this test at Ryerson.’ Ryerson was facing the same challenges that Carleton had,” says Fox.

Ryerson and Carleton then negotiated the first leasing agreement for the test. This would pave the way for other Canadian and international universities to use the test. Shortly after the Ryerson agreement, the test was formally named the Canadian Academic English Language (CAEL) Assessment.

“The timing for CAEL was perfect in late ‘80s, early ‘90s. There was nothing like it out there; it was the brilliant idea. It obviously had legs because everybody is doing it now,” says Fox.

It’s gone from being strictly used at Carleton to having 26 testing sites across the country. The 2.5-hour test that costs $185, is recognized by post-secondary institutions across Canada, as well as professional organizations. The test is also accepted at universities in the U.K., Scotland, Sweden and the U.S.

“It’s not just international students that take our tests. We have a few professional institutions that use it, we have veterinarians, physicians and we also have immigration consultants,” adds Fraser.

Throughout its history, the CAEL has been one of the top three language proficiency tests – albeit on the smallest scale of the group. But the number of people who choose to take CAEL over the other tests continues to grow, says Fraser.

As for Fox, she’s moved on from CAEL but has used it as a springboard for other research projects, including a specific test for engineering students.

“In recent years I’ve become really interested in diagnostic assessment and how we can use diagnostic assessments in post-admission contexts,” says Fox.

Meanwhile, Fraser says the CAEL has a great reputation.

“It has a great reputation because we are the kind of test we are, we’re not that big. We don’t do millions of tests, we do thousands. We have a different kind of relationship with our test takers, we track them in a different way, we know the number of tests they’ve taken, the kinds of issues they’re having with reading, writing, and listening … so we have a great reputation with CAEL,” says Fraser.

And Fox agrees.

“I don’t know what the future of CAEL is. I would hope, given its history and its importance in Canada because it is the Canadian test, it could certainly be promoted more and developed. It’s still being used very effectively within the university and across Canada.

“It’s my baby. And it’s nice that people are still using it.”









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