A tech solution to language testing

With English seen as the language of globalisation, International English Language Testing System (IELTS)is now more popular than ever. Here's how one company is using biometric technology to catch those trying to scam the system.

Statistics on the uptake of English language across the world are simply staggering.

It’s estimated that  380 million people speaking English as their first language and by 2050, almost half the world’s population will have developed English language skills.

It’s the language of globalisation — of technology, international business, politics and diplomacy.

IDP Education is an Australian company that co-owns the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). The test is relied upon by universities, Governments and organisations to determine the English language proficiency of individuals where English skills are a key requirement.

The stakes are high for test takers because IELTS test results can lead to life changing opportunities.

Gaining access to skilled migration and international education often hinges on individuals demonstrating their English skills have reached a required level of proficiency. That’s why it’s not surprising that a small number of determined people try to fraudulently obtain IELTS results.

To protect the interests of genuine candidates and more than 8,000 organisations who rely on the integrity of results, IELTS has employed sophisticated, home grown biometric technology.

We partnered with a Brisbane based company to develop a purpose-built system we named Identity Authentication Management (IAM). The system links each test taker’s data to their finger scan and a high resolution photo. Our objective was to deliver a technology solution to deliver tangible improvements in test security without causing disruption for test takers or our other internal operations.

It was three years in the making from concept to delivery, and we’re proud of the end result – a product used to support IELTS across many of the 130 countries and 800 locations where it is delivered today.

It’s important to note that biometrics is just one element of our broader security solution. Maintaining the security of IELTS depends on a combination of technologically advanced systems, strong governance and good people with the right skills and high attention to detail.

Our security management processes begin before test day and are carried through every stage of IELTS testing. Tests are offered across a predetermined set of dates and unique versions of test papers are prepared for each test.

On test day, test takers have their identities and documents verified by trained supervisors and their photo and finger scan captured. Test takers verify their identity as they move through the four stages of the testing process.

Since introducing biometrics in 2010, we’ve noticed that fraud attempts have significantly reduced. One example is “photo morphing” – the practice of merging the image of a genuine test taker with an imposter paid to sit the test on their behalf.  As IAM uses only the photo of the person presenting to sit the test (supported by a finger scan) we’ve eliminated the attempted use of morphed photos while imposters have substantially reduced.

Although advanced security measures don’t remove good old fashion cheating, they have already helped us to detect cheats. In one example a test taker requested a toilet break, and after completing a biometric finger scan to leave the facility, hid test answers for another test taker in the bathroom. The combination of skilled supervisors and data from IAM helped to identify the cheat, resulting in the withholding of those test results.

I’m looking forward to discussing advances in biometrics and sharing best practice solutions with other participants at this week’s Biometrics Institute of Asia Pacific Conference in Sydney.

The is an opportunity to share insights and discuss emerging technology, privacy and security developments with participants including intelligence, policing, customs and border protection agencies from across Australia and abroad.

Like readers of these pages, I’m also excited about how technology can improve our lives.

However, I’m also watchful of how the latest developments, including wearable technology, could potentially be exploited by those seeking to obtain unearned IELTS results.

Our approach must always be to keep one eye on the delivery of IELTS testing today and the other on the security threats of tomorrow.

John Belleville is Global IELTS director at IDP: IELTS Australia.