IELTS stands for the International English Language Testing System and it is a test designed to assess how well a learner speaks English. In 2008 over 1.2 million people took the tests in 120 different countries. It is held regularly throughout the year, several times each month.
There are two versions of the IELTS exam: the Academic Version and the General Training Version. The Academic Version is intended for those who want to enroll in universities and other institutions of higher education and for professionals such as medical doctors and nurses who want to study or practise in an English-speaking country. The General Training Version is intended for those planning to undertake non-academic training or to gain work experience, or for immigration purposes.
IELTS is accepted by most Australian, British, Canadian, Irish, New Zealand and South African academic institutions, by an increasing number of academic institutions in the USA, and by various professional organizations. In the US, however, the similar but homegrown TOEFL exam is more popular; amongst students IELTS has a reputation of being easier than TOEFL.
Although initially the test was taken mainly by students hoping to enter university abroad, it has become increasingly popular amongst job seekers and migrants hoping to prove their English skills to employers and government authorities and the test is very often required by the immigration authorities in various western countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada as proof of an applicant's competence level in English.
This has led to criticism of the exam which it is felt does not necessarily test a learner's ability to live and operate well in a new country. In Australia, for example, where the test was very popular amongst visa applicants the Department for Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) is now considering home-grown tests that reflect local culture and language.
With the potential benefits of a good IELTS score so high there have been cases of examiners being bribed to artificially raise scores, especially for those learners hoping to secure a visa with the result.
The IELTS test consists of four parts covering the main language skills. The test takes place over the course of one day.
Each candidate's language skill is evaluated on a scale from 0 (non-user) to 9 (expert user). IELTS issue specimen materials and tests.
One noted criticism of the test are that it is reasonably good at measuring competent to good speakers of English but less reliable with lower levels.
IELTS - official website