TOPSS Testing

To maintain high education standards for all students and faculty, Lehigh University complies with Pennsylvania's Act 76, the English Fluency Act of 1990. This law requires that universities test instructional faculty for whom English is a non-native language and certify that they are fluent in English.

TOPSS—Test of Pedagogical Speaking Skills—assesses the speaking proficiency of International Teaching Assistants (ITAs) in a broad range of instructional contexts at Lehigh University. Testing is coordinated between your department and ESL staff. The scores of this assessment can only be used for ITA placements at Lehigh University and are not transferrable to other institutions. The scores are valid for two years.

Register for TOPSS now!

If you have questions, please email

Structure of the TOPSS

The TOPSS has three parts to assess different aspects of teaching.

Part I: Extemporaneous Speaking: Make an Informative Announcement. You will get a paper with a schedule for an event. On the piece of paper are some changes. In 3-4 minutes, you must inform the audience of the announcement, emphasizing the changes. You must then make an appropriate connection to Part Two.

Part II: Planned Speaking: Presentation on an Academic Topic. You will prepare an oral presentation on a topic relevant to your discipline with a PowerPoint or other visual such as a handout or board work for an audience. Some interrupting questions from audience possible. A department representative will choose the topic and notify you in writing at least 48 hours before the test.

Part III: Impromptu Speaking: Responding to Audience Questions. After your presentation, audience members will ask questions about the topic.

All three parts of the presentation will be reviewed by two ESL professionals and one or more faculty members from your department. After finishing the TOPSS presentation, you will be excused from the room, and each rater will independently assign scores using the evaluation rubric. After each assigns a score, one ESL professional and the department faculty will discuss your performance with recommendations. The other ESL rater will independently write his or her recommendations.

Your final score for all three parts of your presentation will be an average of all raters’ scores and will determine if you need English courses. Your results will be emailed to you within five business days after you take your TOPSS.

To retain your TA status, you must successfully complete the English coursework and any other requirements during the semester immediately following the TOPSS to remain in compliance with Act 76. You can delay these conditions only if you do not plan to assume TA responsibilities in that immediate semester.

TOPSS Evaluation Rubric

Each rater will assign one holistic score (1-4) for all three parts of the TOPSS that reflects your English language performance across the following criteria:

  • Oral Delivery: Appropriate rate of speech with few distracting pauses or “ums” or incomplete sentences.
  • Pronunciation: Understandable pronunciation of key words. Pronunciation did not significantly affect comprehension.
  • Grammar: Understanding of points and details or examples. Grammar errors, if any, were minor because they did not significantly affect comprehension.
  • Vocabulary: Use of correct general vocabulary words to express meaning. Use of discipline-specific vocabulary was accurate and clearly defined.
  • Organization: The overall organization of the presentation was clear. Use of transitions was clear.
  • Logical Flow: The logical flow from one idea to the next was easy to understand.
  • Response to Questions: The ITA adequately and appropriately responded to audience questions.
  • Teaching Standards: The ITA met department’s standards and expectations for effective teaching of disciplinary content. (Assessed by Department representative only)

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How do you determine if an ITA needs English language coursework or tutoring?

If you score below 3.0, you can assume Limited TA Duties, which means no independent teaching of a class. You must enroll in and successfully pass one or more of the following: ESLP 012, ESLP 003, ESLP 004 AND/OR 6-18 tutoring appointments BEFORE assuming full TA responsibilities (only grading, office hours, emailing students, etc.). You may then take the TOPSS again and earn 3.5-4.0 upon successful completion; otherwise, continue with limited duties or retake ESLP course work and/or tutoring.

If you score 3.0-3.49, you can assume Supported TA Duties. You must enroll in and successfully pass one or more of the following: ESLP 012, ESLP 003, ESLP 004 AND/OR 6-18 tutoring appointments WHILE assuming some TA responsibilities (i.e., supervised teaching of a class). You may then take the TOPSS again and earn 3.5-4.0 upon successful completion; otherwise, continue with limited duties or retake ESLP course work and/or tutoring.

If you score 3.5-4.0, you can assume Full TA Duties (i.e., the full range of TA duties including independent teaching of a class); 1-4 optional tutoring appointments can be considered.

Q: Why do you video record the TOPSS?

A: The recordings are used only to train test raters, to use as a teaching tool with the ITA, and to review when there is a test score dispute. Only test raters, test administrators and the ITA have the right to view the recording, which will be securely stored and then deleted after three years.

Q: What can I do if I don’t want to be video recorded?

A: You may choose to be audio-recorded if you notify the test administrator in advance of the test date. If you do not want to be audio-recorded either, then you can request that in advance as well. Please understand, though, that if you choose no recording, then we cannot use it for the above purposes that potentially benefit you.

Q: Who needs to take the TOPSS?

A: At Lehigh University, we require testing of graduate assistants who will be communicating with students in a broad range of instructional contexts: lecture courses, seminar courses, recitation sessions, clinics, lab classes, individualized independent study courses, emailing students with instructions and feedback, grading student work, and engaging in office hours with students. We DO NOT include the following courses in this requirement: courses taught primarily in languages other than English (e.g., an intermediate to advanced level language class taught primarily in Chinese).

Q: Are there any exceptions for those individuals who come from other English-speaking countries?

A: If you have successfully earned a baccalaureate and/or master’s degree from an accredited four-year institution of higher education located in any of the following countries, the TOPSS requirement is waived:

  • United States (including its territories)
  • Australia
  • Belize
  • British Caribbean and British West Indies
  • Canada
  • Republic of Ireland
  • New Zealand
  • United Kingdom

If you have earned a degree from one of the above or following countries (Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Liberia, the Philippines, India, South Africa, Guyana), TOPSS may also be waived, depending on the nature and quality of your degree coursework (e.g. GRE, GPA, Length of Program). In lieu of TOPSS, an alternative 30-minute Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) may be required. However, even in these cases, if your department has concerns about your English language proficiency and your suitability for a TA assignment, then your department can still require you to take the TOPSS.

Q: What happens if I don't take the test?

A: If you are not exempt from taking the test and if you assume teaching duties without taking and passing the TOPSS, then your department runs the risk of a fine levied by the State of Pennsylvania for each course section that you teach.

Q: What can I do if I think the score is wrong?

A: First, consult with your academic adviser or your department representative to discuss your concerns. If your adviser or department head feels that your score is an inaccurate representation of your English language abilities, that person should contact the ITA Program Coordinator. Final test scores may be reviewed under the following conditions: (a) it is suspected that the identity of the person recorded on the audio-tape is not the examinee to whom the score was assigned; (2) it is suspected that there was a significant discrepancy between the paired raters’ scores; and/or, (3) it is suspected that standard testing procedures were not followed. In one of these cases, the Coordinator will check the assessment records and the video recording to ensure the accuracy of scores and procedures, and an additional rating may take place. If there was a mistake, you may be eligible to take the test again. If there was no mistake and if you want to take the test again, then you will have to pay a test administration fee of $120.

Q: How do I find out the results?

A: Your results will be emailed to you and your department representation within five business days.

Q: How can I prepare for the TOPSS?

A: We recommend several things in order to prepare and do well on the TOPSS:

  • Review the TOPSS material on the ESL website or on this handout
  • Register and attend one or more free TOPSS workshops
  • Talk to your academic advisor or department representative
  • Organize your presentation with an introduction (with a main point), step-by-step individual points with examples and using transition phrases, and a final conclusion. Take brief notes on index cards. Don’t write out the whole presentation in full sentences.
  • Prepare your visual in a neatly organized, professional and grammatically correct manner. Have someone check your visual and give you feedback on it.
  • Practice for the TOPSS in front of friends and colleagues; tell them to ask you questions during and after your presentation
  • Get a good night’s sleep and have a healthy breakfast or lunch
  • Arrive early to the test site and spend some time setting up and mentally preparing
  • Don’t memorize your presentation