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Computer says no: Irish vet fails oral English test needed to stay in Australia

An Irish veterinarian with degrees in history and politics has been unable to convince a machine she can speak English well enough to stay in Australia.

Louise Kennedy is a native English speaker, has excellent grammar and a broad vocabulary. She holds two university degrees – both obtained in English – and has been working in Australia as an equine vet on a skilled worker visa for the past two years.

But she is now scrambling for other visa options after a computer-based English test – scored by a machine – essentially handed her a fail in terms of convincing immigration officers she can fluently speak her own language.

Earlier this year, Kennedy decided she would seek permanent residency in Australia on the grounds of her vocation, as a shortage profession. She knew she would have to sit a mandatory English proficiency test but was shocked when she got the results of her Pearson Test of English (PTE) Academic.

While she blitzed all other components of the test including writing and reading, she failed to reach the minimum score immigration requires in oral fluency. She got 74 when the government requires 79.

Kennedy went to Pearson, which administers the PTE test. Pearson is one of five test providers the immigration department uses to assess English competency for visa purposes.

But it is the only one that uses voice recognition technology to test speaking ability, with audio recordings then marked by a “scoring engine” that has been trained to identify acceptable and unacceptable answers to questions that pop up on a computer screen.

Other test providers have said they use human assessors to determine if people are competent speakers of English. Kennedy is convinced the PTE technology is flawed.

“There’s obviously a flaw in their computer software, when a person with perfect oral fluency cannot get enough points,” she said.

Pearson has categorically denied there is anything wrong with its computer-based test or the scoring engine trained to analyse candidates’ responses.

Sasha Hampson, the head of English for Pearson Asia Pacific, says the immigration department set the bar very high for people seeking permanent residency.

Pearson, which conducts its PTE test worldwide for a wide range of purposes, does not offer a pass or a fail, simply a score.

Kennedy, who is due to have a baby in October, says she will now have to pursue a bridging visa, while she seeks a more expensive spouse visa so she can remain with her Australian husband.

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/aug/08/computer-says-no-irish-vet-fails-oral-english-test-needed-to-stay-in-australia