Comparing international student achievement levels from different admissions pathways

There is a growing number of international students attending post-secondary institutions in OECD countries, many from nations where English is second or foreign language. Universities and colleges often require applicants to provide evidence of English Language Proficiency (ELP) as part of their admission, to provide an approximate measure of their ability to communicate in English.

North American universities often use scores from standardized tests (such as IELTS and TOEFL), or ask that students complete English language programs before they are enrolled in their program. The standardized tests require a certain grade or score in order to be considered, while those who choose the English language programs must pass a series of courses to support their language proficiency skills.

However, the minimum requirements of these three different assessments may not represent the same proficiency levels. These tests measure different aspects of ELP, and a student entering via one test may not have the same English language skills as those in the other streams. Despite these challenges, university admissions continue to treat these routes as those they are represent equivalent measures.

Drs. Greg Tweedie and Man-Wai Chu compared the academic achievement of international students who entered an undergraduate engineering program via IELTS, TOEFL, and an English for Academic Purposes (EAP) program. The researchers were interested in whether the three streams were comparable for predicting the students’ success in their program.

Comparing Achievement

Over 5 years, data were collected from 254 international students entering their first year of an engineering program. The sample included 183 male and 71 female students, from 49 different countries. 116 students were admitted through TOEFL, 67 through IELTS, and 71 through the EAP.

The team looked at three criteria to compare the groups: (1) the percent of students who completed all 10 first-year engineering courses, (2) the students’ GPAs in each course and (3) the students’ GPAs in each semester:

(1) Ten Engineering Courses

When examining completion of the 10 courses, the team found a statistically significant difference between students admitted via TOEFL and the EAP program. While 30.7% of TOEFL students completed all 10 courses, only 13.8% of EAP students completed the same courses. This contradicted expectations that the EAP would provide students with the academic and social acculturation necessary to promote increased completion rates. Additionally, it was found that only 61.8% of all international students complete these 10 courses in their first year, which is 10% lower than what is typically expected of these students.

(2) Course GPAs

Student GPAs were compared for each of the 10 mandatory courses. Statistically significant differences were found for three courses. Particularly in the Communications course, TOEFL students outperformed their peers in the EAP program, despite efforts in EAP to prepare students for communication-based activities – such as presentations – which were the main form of assessment in this course.

(3) Semester GPAs

No significant differences were found between the students’ overall GPAs at the end of each semester, and their overall first year. The groups’ mean scores for the year ranged between 2.73 (EAP) and 2.88 (IELTS). Students in the IELTS group consistently had the highest mean score at each of these stages, followed by the TOEFL group, and finally the EAP program.

Supporting Success

Although academic achievement is influenced by a number of factors, given that these measures are treated equally by universities, students from each group would be expected to have similar GPAs and course complete rates. While ELP is an important and necessary criteria for admitting students, the multiple measures accepted by some institutions make it difficult to ensure all students have a similar level of language proficiency and likelihood of success in their programs.

There is a need to pay closer attention to these ELP measures, and how the universities admit and support international students. These results give support for current shifts away from generalized EAP programming, in favour of more content-based approaches. The overall lower rates of completion also speak to the importance of providing ongoing programming after students are admitted, as students may continue to struggle with English proficiency. Understanding what may be measured through each of these tests can also help administrators make informed judgments of students’ abilities at the various levels, and strengthen planning of language programs for student success.


See more from Dr. Greg Tweedie on his profile

See more from Dr. Man-Wai Chu on her profile


Connected Citations

Tweedie, M. G., & Chu, M.-W. (2017). Challenging equivalency in measures of English language proficiency for university admission: data from an undergraduate engineering programme. Studies in Higher Education. Available Online.