Common European Framework
How should the CEFR be used by recognising institutions wishing to set language ability requirements?
Test users may find the Council of Europe’s Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) helpful. The framework is a series of descriptions of abilities at different learning levels that can be applied to any language. It can provide a starting point for interpreting and comparing different language qualifications and is increasingly used as a way of benchmarking language ability around the world.
IELTS and the CEFR
To help test users understand the relationship between IELTS band scores and the six CEFR levels, Cambridge English Language Assessment has conducted several studies to map the IELTS 9-band scale to the CEFR, drawing on the interrelationship between IELTS and other Cambridge English Language Assessment qualifications and the known relationship of these latter qualifications to the CEFR.
In fulfilling its purpose as a common reference tool, the CEFR was not designed to provide the basis for precise equating, nor was it intended to be a prescriptive tool to impose standardised solutions. Rather it was designed as a common framework of reference, primarily intended as ‘a tool for reflection, communications and empowerment’, as described by John Trim, its co-ordinating author (Saville, N 2005).
Therefore, we would recommend that all recognising institutions should look at the IELTS band score descriptors and use the IELTS Scores Guide DVD to ascertain the appropriate level of language ability required for their institution or course.
Making comparisons between scores on different tests is challenging because many of the current range of test products differ in their design, purpose, and format (Taylor, 2004a). Test takers’ aptitude and preparation for a particular type of test may also vary and individual test takers or groups of test takers may perform better in certain tests than in others
Specifying the relationship between a test product and the CEFR is challenging because, in order to function as a framework, the CEFR is deliberately underspecified (Davidson & Fulcher, 2007; Milanovic, 2009; Weir, 2005). Establishing the relationship is also not a one-off activity, but rather involves the accumulation of evidence over time (e.g. it needs to be shown that test quality and standards are maintained).
Cambridge English Language Assessment has been working since the 1990s to refine its understanding of the relationship between its different assessment products, including IELTS, and the CEFR. The relationship of IELTS with the CEFR is complex as IELTS is not a level-based test, but rather designed to span a much broader proficiency continuum. It also utilises a different 9-point band scoring system; thus, there will not be a one-to-one correspondence between IELTS scores and CEFR levels. It is important to bear in mind the differences in test purpose, test format, test populations, and measurement scales when seeking to make comparisons.
With the above in mind, Cambridge English Language Assessment has conducted a number of research projects since the late 1990s to explore how IELTS band scores align with the CEFR levels. A number of these were summarised in Taylor (2004b), while cautioning that, “As we grow in our understanding of the relationship between IELTS and the CEFR levels, so the frame of reference may need to be revised accordingly.
Note that the IELTS band scores referred to in the figure are the overall band scores, not the individual module band scores for Listening, Reading, Writing and Speaking. It is important to recognise that the purpose of this figure is to communicate the relationship between IELTS and the CEFR. They should not be interpreted as reflecting strong claims about exact equivalence between assessment products or the scores they generate, for the reasons given in Taylor (2004a).
The current alignment is based upon a growing body of internal and external research, some of which has also appeared in peer-reviewed academic journals, attesting to their quality (e.g. Hawkey & Barker, 2004; Lim, Geranpayeh, Khalifa & Buckendahl, 2013). This research has been further combined with long established experience of test use within education and society, as well as feedback from a range of stakeholders regarding the uses of test results for particular purposes.
As further work, such as that being undertaken in the English Profile project, enriches our understanding of the CEFR levels, further refinements may be possible.