Duolingo, the translation software company founded by Luis von Ahn, wants to offer standardized tests through its app for $20, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal on Friday.
Starting May 13, Android users will be able to take a foreign language proficiency test through the Duolingo app. It is reportedly similar to the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), which is administered by Educational Testing Service and is widely accepted and required. Although Duolingo’s test will have a verified score (by Duolingo), it remains to be seen whether the scores will be valid for uses like college admissions or visa applications.
The TOEFL is administered in controlled environments with paid proctors, and strict rules and timing. This means that the scores are usually honest, but it also raises costs: TOEFL testing can cost hundreds of dollars and requires test takers to travel to a authorized test center. In some countries, that can be a long trip. Not only will an app-based standardized test be more convenient, it could potentially greatly expand access to higher education. Duolingo’s test is targeted at people in developing countries.
However, that raises the major question for Duolingo’s plans: cheating. Namely, how do you stop it when you don’t have a physical proctor in the room? Duolingo’s answer is the onboard cameras and microphones included on modern smartphones. Not only will all audio and video from the front-facing camera be recorded during the test, but the test taker will be asked to turn the phone around to give a 360-degree view of the room to make certain nothing is amiss. Later, Duolingo will have employees review the audio and video looking for signs of cheating — consistently looking away for the screen, for instance.
While that’s a good start, in order for colleges and universities to accept Duolingo’s scores, the amount of cheating should theoretically approach zero, and that may not be possible with the amount of freedom a remote test offers. That’s not the only issue facing Duolingo — the TOFEL curve is well understood statistically and has been honed by 27 million test takers since its introduction in 1964. Will Duolingo be willing to offer enough data for institutions to understand what a Duolingo score means, and will independent authorities be allowed access to verify the test is fair and accurate?
Duolingo is no stranger to wildly ambitious plans: its Duolingo game not only seeks to teach, but also to harness the power of crowdsourcing to translate the internet. In October, Duolingo reached an agreement with Buzzfeed to translate its pages into Brazilian, Spanish, and French. “The goal has been to translate the whole web into every major language,” said CEO von Ahn in 2012.
While Duolingo has not said how long its test will take, the offical TOEFL takes a minimum of three hours and 10 minutes, and can run as long as four and a half hours. Better make sure your battery is charged.
Update: A spokesperson from Duolingo has addressed a few questions. Apparently, Duolingo Test Center scores will directly correlate with TOEFL scores. The University of Pittsburgh is conducting the study. And the Duolingo test will take only 20 minutes, which is a huge advantage over the TOEFL. Duolingo also points out that in certain countries bribing is common, and proctors can be often bribed cheaply.