ESPA Test (English Speaking Proficiency Assessment)

All students for whom English is not a first language (as self-reported on their admissions application) and who have first-time appointments as graduate teaching assistants (TAs) are required to take a test to assess their effectiveness in speaking English before they are assigned assistantship responsibilities. The English Speaking Proficiency Assessment (ESPA) is a test that assesses these students' oral language and listening skills. To take the test, students must be enrolled in a graduate program at The University of Iowa, and an academic department must be considering hiring them as teaching assistants.

Who needs to take the ESPA?

Any graduate student who is included in the following categories needs to have their oral English proficiency tested by the TAPE Program:

  • Students whose first language is not English (i.e. learned another language first) as self-reported on their admissions application
    AND
  • Have been appointed as a Teaching Assistant

Exemptions:

  • Students with an official valid (within the last two years) iBT Listening score of 25 and an iBT Speaking score of 26
  • Pilot for 2021-22: Students who obtained degrees at institutions in which the language of instruction was English. This includes:     
    • Undergraduate degrees and/or     
    • Continuous attendance of English-language schools since the age of 12 (or younger)
  • Pilot for 2021-22: Students who served as teaching assistants at other institutions of higher learning in which the language of instruction is English, provided that they were listed as the instructor of record for a course or led a discussion section in English for at least one year, with a year defined as either two academic semesters or three academic quarters
  • PIlot for 2021: Requests for exceptions can be submitted for evaluation to a committee consisting of the Director of ESL Programs, the Associate Dean for Administrative Affairs in the Graduate College, and a representative from University Human Resources.

Requests for exemption and exceptions must come from the department by the deadline, not the student.   Deadlines to register students for the ESPA and ELPT are:

  • August 1
  • October 1
  • January 1
  • March 1  

NOT Exemptions:

  • Students who come from a country where English is one of the official languages
  • Students who are U.S. permanent residents or U.S. citizens whose first language is not English

If you are unsure if someone needs to take the English Speaking Proficiency Assessment (ESPA), please contact the ESL Programs Office (esl-program@uiowa.edu).

Testing Procedures

All students to be tested must first register for the ESPA test through their departments. When a department offers (or is thinking about offering) a teaching assistantship to a student who has never before been a TA at the University, the department submits an online Request for Evaluation form via the Self-Service page (Administration → Forms → ESL TA Certification). The ESL Office sends the student (via the department) a letter indicating the time and place of the appropriate ESPA testing. This letter is e-mailed to departments to distribute to students.

Students: This letter informs you that you need to officially register for the ESPA. You will be told to come to 1112 University Capitol Centre the day before your scheduled ESPA to register for a specific test time. (Due to the pandemic, registration is done virtually.) If you have additional questions about registering or preparing for the ESPA, please contact the ESL Programs office at any time.

Your answers for the ESPA will be recorded in the audio classroom (17 Phillips Hall) of the Center for Language and Culture Learning (CLCL)(During the pandemic, the ESPA is being administered virtually. Registration information and results will be delivered via email.)  Your performance on the test will be evaluated by two ESL faculty raters using the SPEAK Band Descriptor Chart.

ESPA Flowchart for 2021

When you take the ESPA test, you will be told when to come to the ESL Programs Office to check your results and find out if you have attained a passing ESPA score (or 45 or higher for TAs who will be teaching foreign language courses or an averaged score greater than 45 for students currently enrolled in a TAPE course) and if you are therefore eligible to take the ELPT (English Language Performance Test). Students with passing scores must then sign up to take the ELPT. At registration for the ELPT, each examinee is given detailed instructions on how to prepare for the test. The ELPT is given on the day after students receive their ESPA results. Students who score 60 on the ESPA are not required to take the ELPT.  

It is important for all students to check their results by the assigned day and time.  Students who are eligible for the ELPT and do not sign up by the deadline must wait until the next test date. 

For more details about the ESPA, watch this eight-minute video.
(Download the video transcript.)

ESPA and ELPT Results

Results for ESPA tests given at the beginning of a semester (January and August) are available within two days. Results for ESPA tests given during the middle of a semester (March and October) are available one day prior to administration of the ELPT, (about 3 weeks) after the ESPA.  ELPT results are sent to the students through their departments within a few days of taking that test.  Students can make an appointment with the ESL Programs office to receive individual feedback after the ESPA and the ELPT.

ESPA and ELPT result forms contain the following information:

  • the Level of Certification achieved by the examinee (fully certified, partially certified, or not certified);
  • the types of teaching assistant responsibilities the student has language proficiency to perform; and
  • the TAPE program courses, if any, which the student is required to complete.

Students who take the ESPA/ELPT receive a report indicating one of the following teaching classifications:

ELPT result flowchart for 2021

A = Take full responsibility for a lecture or discussion class
Either the student scored 60 on the ESPA test and does not have to take the ELPT or the student scored 50 or 55 on the ESPA test, and the student's ELPT performance indicated that the student should be able to take full responsibility for a class. No retesting or TAPE classes are required, although the student is required to register for the TAPE Orientation Workshop during the first semester the student teaches.

B = Handle a discussion section or supervise a lab section with minimal supervision
The student scored 50 or higher on the ESPA test, and the ELPT performance has indicated that the student's proficiency is at a level sufficient to teach a discussion section or lab with some faculty supervision. TAPE classes and another ELPT are required if the student wishes to raise their certification to the A level. The student will be required to register for the TAPE Orientation Workshop during the first semester that the student teaches.

C = Assist in a lab situation with immediate supervision or teach a foreign language class where the language of instruction is not English
The student scored 50 or 45 for foreign language TAs. The ELPT performance indicated that the student's proficiency is at a level sufficient to assume duties such as assisting in a lab; however, immediate supervision of a faculty member is required. TAPE classes and an additional ELPT are required if the student wishes to raise their certification to the A or B level.  

D = Conduct office hours (one-on-one interaction only)
If a student scores at least 45 on the ESPA, the student may assume teaching assistantship responsibilities which allow for one-on-one interaction with students, such as conducting office hours. The student cannot assume teaching assistantship responsibilities in a classroom setting. TAPE classes are required before the student is allowed to retake the ESPA test.

E = Grade papers or handle other duties that do not require direct contact with students
The student scored less than 45 on the ESPA test and must not be assigned duties that require direct contact with students. TAPE classes are required before the student is allowed to retake the ESPA test. If the student's score is below 40, the student is required to take ESL Academic Oral Skills before enrolling in TAPE classes.

Retesting

Students who do not achieve the required passing score on the ESPA can retest only if:

  • they take one of the required TAPE classes (in which case they will be automatically retested at the end of the class), OR
  • they wait an entire year (students may only do this once).

Classroom Follow-up

The final component of the TAPE Program is the follow-up classroom observation. This is designed to provide TAs whose first language is not English with support and assistance during their first semester in a UI classroom. The observations are conducted in the fall and spring semesters, when the majority of teaching assistants are in the classroom. 

How it works:
An instructor from ESL Programs meets with a first-time TA after class to suggest ways to improve the TA's language or ways to use language compensation skills. The TA is invited to discuss problems or questions which have arisen during the semester. Finally, a written report of the visit is later sent to the TA.

Recertification

In some cases, TAs who are certified at level B ("handle a discussion section or supervise a lab section with minimal supervision") will have their certification level raised to an A ("take full responsibility for a lecture/discussion class"), based on the classroom observation. Students with a B certification may ask their department to contact the ESL Programs office to request a recertification observation with the hope of raising their certification to the A level.