Dr Nick Saville and Dr Hanan Khalifa talk about the new PISA Project, which will assess students’ proficiency in English from 2025


PISA is an international survey conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to assess the knowledge and skills of 15-year-old students in reading, mathematics, and science. The addition of the English language proficiency assessment will provide a more comprehensive picture of students' abilities.

Cambridge Assessment will work with PISA to develop the assessment, which will be based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), a widely recognized framework for language proficiency. The assessment will be computer-based and will include tasks that measure listening, reading, and writing skills.

The results of the English language proficiency assessment will be used by participating countries to identify areas for improvement in their language education programs and to compare their students' performance with students from other countries. The assessment will also provide valuable information for researchers and policymakers working to improve language education worldwide.

Overall, this partnership between Cambridge Assessment and PISA represents an important step towards promoting language education and ensuring that students are equipped with the language skills necessary to succeed in a globalized world.

ELT NEWS has asked two experts in the field to shed light on the process and implementation of the new project - Dr Nick Saville, Director of Thought Leadership at Cambridge University Press & Assessment and Dr Hanan Khalifa, Director of Education Transformation and Impact at Cambridge University Press & Assessment 

  • Is there a universal agreement on the definition of a foreign language? 

Dr Nick Saville: I don’t think there is a single, precise definition of the concept of a foreign language. When trying to define a foreign language the key factor is the context in which the language is learned and used. This varies significantly from person to person and from one region to another.

  • Which is the distinction between a “foreign” and a “second” language?

Dr Nick Saville: Traditionally, a distinction was made between a foreign and a second language, particularly for educational purposes. A foreign language was learned mainly for communication with speakers of that language in other countries, whereas a second language was learned for daily communication with speakers in the learner's country of residence.

So, if an English-speaking student learns French at school in the UK, it is considered a foreign language. If a migrant child learns English at school in UK, and English is different from their home or community language, English is considered to be a second language. Alternatively, in both these cases, the language being learned can be considered an additional language. 

 In reality this is an oversimplification. In many parts of the world language users acquire a capacity to use several languages in different contexts of their lives. For example, languages they use at home, in their local community, in schooling, online or for travel purposes. These days we think of this as a learner’s plurilingual repertoire that is acquired across the lifespan – both inside and outside of school.

This is closely related to language proficiency and how it is defined and understood.

  • Cambridge University Press and Assessment has partnered with PISA to develop an assessment of the English language to be added to the PISA evaluation in 2025. The assessment will probably evaluate foreign language proficiency in all four skills. 

Speaking about the PISA FLA, Dr Hanan Khalifa said: Due to practical and logistical constraints, the 2025 cycle of the PISA FLA will focus on reception (reading and listening comprehension) and production (speaking). The additional demands of testing writing, combined with the high numbers of PISA test takers would not be feasible at this stage. The PISA FLA is an incredibly significant and groundbreaking project, which will provide the comparative data that is needed about how English is actually taught in schools around the world. 

 What is exactly language proficiency?

Dr Nick Saville:
Our understanding of language proficiency is changing in light of the concept of plurilingualism. However, the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) and its Companion Volume have made a great contribution to understanding what language proficiency actually is. The CEFR focuses on the ability to use language effectively for communication in various contexts and situations, and for different purposes. Importantly the reference levels and illustrative descriptors that are found in the CEFR set out what learners can typically do at different levels of proficiency as they make progress in learning the language.

The Companion Volume defines four language activities which are: production, reception, interaction and mediation and how they involve the skills of speaking, listening, reading, and writing. If we look at communicative language competence this is made up of several components which are broadly speaking linguistic, sociolinguistic and pragmatic.

It is important to remember that the CEFR is neutral with regards to the language being learnt; the general principles apply to any language. However the specific linguistic features of the target language need to be taken into account when developing a curriculum, in our case for English. This means the grammar, vocabulary and phonetics of the language to be taught at each level.

At Cambridge we take these specific features into consideration to develop pedagogical tools, such as course books, practice tests, dictionaries, etc. and increasingly technology-driven support which learners can access online - anytime any place. So, you need a general framework to understand proficiency, but you also need to focus on the language components that are specific to the languages you are learning.

  • What task types will be used for all four skills?

Dr Hanan Khalifa: The reading and listening tests employ a multi-stage adaptive design, meaning that students’ performances in initial sections of the test determine, in part, the final assignment of forms to students. Speaking is non-adaptive; the characteristics of the spoken output will determine the proficiency level.

All speaking tasks are designed both to be accessible to lower-level students and to provide appropriate opportunities for higher-level students to demonstrate their ability. The context is very different from a test like IELTS, which has been designed to meet the very specific set of requirements needed to help people use English for work, study or migration, and is also different from single-level tests, such as Cambridge First, which are designed to assess candidates performing round a specified CEFR level.

The PISA Programme intends to explore the assessment of the remaining modes of communication in future iterations of the FLA. Also, it is important to note that this isn’t a competition. The study has very clear objectives and the focus is on identifying factors which contribute to successful language learning within and across countries. For this reason, it should not be thought of as a ‘league table’; it’s much more than that. Nevertheless, the OECD has a tried and tested methodology for ensuring that the outcomes of the tests do facilitate robust, meaningful comparisons.

  • Have you taken into account individual differences based on the experience and background of each learner?

Dr Hanan Khalifa: The full scope of the study has not yet been published, but as with the other well-established elements of PISA, the study will cover a wide range of factors which affect educational outcomes. So, for example along with the English assessment, there will also be questionnaires sent to teachers, students, schools and parents to help paint a really rich picture of English teaching in schools.

The questionnaire for students for instance will cover background information about the students themselves, their attitudes, dispositions and beliefs, their homes, and their school and learning experiences. This extra contextual information will provide added richness to the analysis of the students’ performance. By breaking down students into these sub-groups, the analysis hopes to highlight what might work better for each student according to their characteristics.

  • What is the impact of machine translation tools in foreign language writing? Are these tools widely used in education? Can they be motivational for students and improve self-directed learning or lead to plagiarism and exposure to inaccurate lexis and grammar if not properly monitored?

Dr Nick Saville: I’d like to start by saying these tools are here to stay, but like any new technology, they need to be used carefully and we may need better guidelines to make sure they are used productively to avoid unintended consequences, such as cheating. Or to put it another way, don’t ban it, understand it! 

Let’s look at machine translation for example. Machine translation tools are becoming more widely used in language learning contexts, although educators remain cautious about relying on them too heavily. These tools use artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language processing to translate texts from one language to another. Language learning platforms can use these tools to help students understand new words and phrases in real-time, and this can provide interactive and engaging learning experiences.

Most recently AI-based systems have come to the attention of the general public through OpenAI’s large language model and chatbot interface - ChatGPT. This generative AI model can construct written texts of any length in response to a query in a matter of seconds. This has raised concerns about plagiarism and other forms of cheating, for example if students use the tool to produce their homework or to write essays that will be graded as part of an examination. Some educators have suggested that ChatGPT should be banned from schools and universities for this reason.

However, we believe that these new developments in AI offer benefits as well as risks. For example, if we can deploy AI-based systems to provide automated feedback to learners, we can bring learning and assessment together in a more integrated way and personalise the learning journey.

In saying this, we must ensure that we keep “the human in control” and I believe teachers will play a crucial role alongside the machines. For example, in large classes teachers often have little time to provide personalised feedback to their students, e.g., on writing tasks they do for homework.  But an AI-based system can do this in an automated way.  The learner can practice writing and can get timely feedback; the teacher can access this information and free up time to focus on other aspects of the lesson. Our Write and Improve with the Class view option is a great example of this.  

I think in the future this kind of hybrid approach that draws on the complementary strengths of teachers and machines will have a really positive impact on language learning.

Nick Saville is Director of Thought Leadership, at Cambridge University Press & Assessment and Secretary-General of the Association of Language Testers in Europe (ALTE). He holds a PhD in language assessment specialising in test impact and has over 40 years’ experience in the field of language education. He is an expert for the Council of Europe, including for the CEFR and its Companion Volume and co-editor of the Studies in Language Testing series (CUP). Nick’s current interests include, plurilingualism, learning-oriented assessment (LOA), EdTech combined with educational uses of AI, assessment literacy and ethical frameworks in language assessment.

Dr Hanan Khalifa is an award-winning international expert in English Language Education. She builds institutional capacity in test development, methodology, action research, and impact evaluation. She works with ministries on education reform, baseline assessment and curricula alignment to international standards. Before joining Cambridge, Dr Khalifa worked for the Egyptian Ministry of Education and Higher Education, USAID, DFID and the British Council. 


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