ESPA Test (English Speaking Proficiency Assessment)

All students for whom English is not a first language 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?

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

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

  • Students whose first language is not English (i.e. learned another language first)
  • Have been appointed as a Teaching Assistant


  • Students with an iBT Listening score of 25 and an iBT Speaking score of 26
  • Requests for exemption must come from the department, not the student

NOT Exemptions:

  • Students who have completed graduate work at The University of Iowa
  • Students who have received a Bachelor’s or Master’s Degree from a U.S. institution of higher education or received a degree from a school where English is the language of instruction
  • Students who come from a country where English is an official language
  • Students who are U.S. permanent residents or U.S. citizens whose first language is not English

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 student mailboxes; it is not sent directly to students.

Students: This letter informs you that you need to officially register for the ESPA test. You will be told to come to 1112 University Capitol Centre the day before your scheduled ESPA test to register for a specific test time. When you sign up for a specific time, we will inform you of the location of the test and answer questions you may have.

You will take the ESPA in the audio classroom of the Language Media Center, where your answers will be recorded. Your performance on the test will be evaluated by two certified ESL raters. 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 an acceptable ESPA score (50 or higher) and if you are therefore eligible to take the ELPT (English Language Performance Test). Students who score 50 or 55 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.

Students who score 50 or 55 on the ESPA test but do not come in on the assigned day to check their results will miss the ELPT and have to 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, 3 to 4 weeks after the ESPA.  ELPT results are sent to the students through their departments within a day of taking that test.

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:

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 her ELPT performance indicated that she 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 that she 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 his certification to the A level. The student will be required to register for the TAPE Orientation Workshop during the first semester that he 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 45 for foreign language TAs or 50 for all other 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 her 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, he 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, she is required to take ESL Academic Oral Skills before enrolling in TAPE classes.

View ESPA and ELPT Results Flowcharts.


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 her 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.


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 who have been teaching for more than one semester and who were observed in their first semester of teaching 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.