Inaccurate ETS test finds most English language test students 'cheated'

Occurred: February 2014

An automated test intended to flag cheating by foreign students doing English language tests to quality for UK visas proved highly inaccurate, resulting in political controversy.

ETS, the company that developed and run the language tests, used voice recognition software to detect whether the same voices turned up on multiple test recordings, indicating the same proxy had faked exams for several people. According to the final results, 97 percent of 58,000 Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) tests taken between 2011 and 2014 were judged suspicious - a figure widely regarded as implausible.

BBC Panorama first uncovered 'systematic' fraud in the UK's student visa system in 2014, with undercover filming showing entire rooms of candidates having TOIEC tests faked for them. Panorama researchers were also sold fake bank details to demonstrate they had sufficient funds to stay in the UK.  The government-approved system was suspended and thousands of people deported without appeal

In 2019, a National Audit Office investigation concluded that the Home Office's course of action against TOEIC students 'carried with it the possibility that a proportion of those affected might have been branded as cheats, lost their course fees, and been removed from the UK without being guilty of cheating or adequate opportunity to clear their names.'

A 2022 BBC Newsnight investigation found that the UK Home Office continued to remove people discovered to be cheating in English language tests, despite evidence of poor conduct and inaccurate data at ETS.

Operator: UK Home Office
Developer: Educational Testing Service (ETS)
Country: UK
Sector: Govt - immigration
Purpose: Detect cheating
Technology: Voice recognition
Issue: Accuracy/reliability; Effectiveness/value
Transparency: Governance; Complaints/appeals

Investigations, assessments, audits 🧐

Page info
Type: Incident
Published: February 2022
Last updated: February 2024