Duolingo launches a test to certify foreign language fluency on a smartphone

Android users will now be able to take a certified foreign language proficiency test through a smartphone app. On Wednesday, language learning and crowdsourced translation app Duolingo announced Test Center, a feature that lets students take standardized tests virtually proctored through the device’s camera. If it takes off, it could be the first step in removing some of the headaches associated with standardized testing.
Back in April, the Wall Street Journal reported that Duolingo wanted to administer and proctor foreign language exams, and today’s announcement largely confirms those details. The test will eventually cost $20 — although it’s currently free — and will take 20 minutes to complete because it’s a computer-adaptive test, as opposed to hours for tests like the Educational Testing Service’s Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), which is currently the most widely accepted standard.
A TOEFL test costs around $250, depending on exchange rates. Plus, test takers often need to travel to a major city to take it. Meanwhile, some Android smartphones are currently selling for around $100, so if Duolingo’s standard is widely accepted, people could come out ahead even if they bought a smartphone exclusively for this purpose.
Of course, our utopian future with short and cheap standardized tests taken on mobile devices depends on whether this first test becomes a widely accepted standard. First, institutions want to certify that the scores are real and there hasn’t been anything untoward. Duolingo plans to combat cheating by using proctors — real people — who will supervise test takers through the device’s camera and microphone. Before the test starts, the app asks you to take a picture of an official government identification document.
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The second hurdle before schools, employers, and goverments embrace the certification is that the scores need to be reliable. Duolingo has worked with Carnegie Mellon — which is currently looking into accepting the certification for college applicants  — to demonstrate the scores are closely correlated with the TOEFL. Having taken a number of standardized tests, I don’t find it hard to believe that a well-designed computer-adaptive test could produce statistically similar results in a fraction of the time.
Google has also agreed to look into accepting Duolingo test scores for applicants who need to demonstrate English fluency. Let’s hope stodgier institutions follow suit.
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