Back in the 1960s, the British Council created an exam called EPTB (English Proficiency Test Battery) to test international applicants wanting to study at universities and colleges in the UK. The EPTB mainly used multiple choice questions and focused on reading and listening skills with a set of three subtests: listening comprehension, reading comprehension, and reading speed. The EPTB did not evaluate writing or speaking, and this was a drawback that was fully understood by the test’s creators, who hoped that innovative evaluations of reading and listening would make up for this weakness. By the end of the 1970s, the EPTB was considered a little old-fashioned. So, in 1980, it was replaced by ELTS, the English Language Testing Service.
This exam was much more modern in approach and practical use. For example, it was more communicative and was intended to reflect how language was used in the real world, particularly in the academic context of universities and colleges. The ELTS was a set of six modules, five of which were subject-specific (life sciences, social studies, physical sciences, technology, and medicine). The sixth module was a “general academic” assessment. However, during the 1980s the number of candidates taking the test was quite low. For instance, only 4,000 people took the test in 1981. It is true that this had risen to 10,000 by 1985, but if this figure is compared to the number of candidates who take IELTS each year these days – more than a million – it can assume why they considered it to be quite small.
The early IELTS
The International English Language Testing System was developed during the 1980s and first administered to students in 1989. The IELTS had a four-module structure (reading, writing, speaking, and listening) in two versions (academic and general training) that has been the basis of the test ever since. The speaking and listening modules were general, and there was only one version of these two sections. Over the next few years, the number of candidates increased rapidly. In 1995, there were over 43,000 candidates, and it was possible to take the test in any one of 210 test centers around the world.
The modern IELTS
The IELTS was substantially revised in 1995. The first change was the elimination of the field-specific writing and reading modules and their assimilation into a single module for each. The exam administration was also improved by altering the day when candidate could take the speaking test and the others administrative improvements. In 2001, the speaking section was changed to include a smaller number of tasks, and examiner scripts and more specific scoring criteria were also integrated into the IELTS speaking paper. Furthermore, the criteria for marking the writing tasks were revised in 2005, there were four areas of evaluation from only three previously. In the same year, a computerised version of the exam was offered at certain test centers.
The IELTS today
2003 was a milestone for IELTS, as it was the year when the number of candidates went over half a million for the first time. There is no doubt that today, a candidature more than double what it was back in 2003, IELTS is a major player in the highly competitive industry of English-Language examinations. It is available at over 1,100 test centers, and is widely accepted by universities and other organizations in all of the major English-speaking countries.