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Phoning it in

Technology | Tests via smartphone may soon challenge traditional methods

Issue: "The one and the many," Sept. 20, 2014

Imagine taking a standardized test such as the SAT on a smartphone in the quiet of your living room instead of in a crowded classroom on a Saturday morning with a dull No. 2 pencil. We’re not there yet, but technology is bringing us closer.

This summer, Duolingo, the free language learning service, launched an app called Test Center—a digital language certification program. Test Center lets users take a standardized test on their mobile device and potentially earn a certification for English language proficiency.

Duolingo is trying to take on standardized exams such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL. The TOEFL, which is owned and run by the Educational Testing Service, is the current model for standardized language testing and is given only at specific test sites. It can cost between $160 and $250—potentially a lot of money to a foreign student wanting to apply to a U.S. university.

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“Most of these tests are usually being taken in developing countries,” said Duolingo Chief Executive Luis von Ahn in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “And there, $250 can be up to a month’s salary.”

Duolingo’s Test Center app currently offers only an English Proficiency Exam but Duolingo plans to expand to other languages. The exam and certificate is free for now, but Duolingo plans to charge $20 for it once it becomes more accepted by universities and companies.

The Test Center exam is largely based on Duolingo’s successful language learning app. There are four types of questions: vocabulary, listening and transcription, sentence completion, and a speaking test that uses your smartphone’s built in microphone. I’ve used Duolingo to keep up my German skills and the types of questions are very similar in structure—almost like playing a game.

A user can complete Test Center exams in as little as 20 minutes—a fraction of the time needed for traditional standardized tests. The reason? Computerized Adaptive Testing, or CAT. If you’ve done really well on previous questions, the app will adapt to this and give you harder ones. No two people taking the same adaptive tests will have the exact same set of questions.

Most standardized tests are taken in person at testing locations to prevent cheating. But Test Center uses the sensing features of the modern smartphone to prevent fraud. Your phone’s front-facing camera and microphone record video and audio of you taking the test the entire time. These recordings become part of the test data, which an independent proctoring company then reviews.

Colleges and employers will likely accept this new credential only if Duolingo can demonstrate that Test Center scores are as valid as the scores on the exam it’s trying to replace—in this case the TOEFL. Validation and reliability tests involving hundreds of test takers have thus far found a very high correlation between the two. Duolingo is partnering with Carnegie Mellon University to conduct ongoing assessments of Test Center’s effectiveness.

Since the July 23 launch, users have downloaded the Android app 157,000 times and completed and scored 9,000 tests. An iPhone version is in the works along with certification tests for Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, and Dutch by the end of the year.

If this summer’s successful launch of Test Center is any indication, language certification via smartphone may start a new trend in standardized testing—and create a real challenge to the No. 2 pencil.

Shape shifter


It may look like a crushed package but it’s the latest innovation in parcel packaging. The new packaging design by Patrick Sung is a perforated cardboard sheet that can conform to the shape of any object, saving on wasteful filler. The triangular perforations allow the sheet to bend around even the oddest forms. —M.C.

Michael Cochrane
Michael Cochrane

Michael is a retired Defense Department engineer and former Army officer who is an adjunct professor of engineering management at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Michael on Twitter @MFCochrane.


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