Last month I published a list of things I would change about the TOEFL to make it better. Since I am neither an assessment expert nor an linguist, the list focused mainly on everything except the content of the actual test. As I promised at that time, I sent the list to a few other teachers and asked what they would change about the test. Today I’m happy to share those comments.  At the end of today’s blog post you’ll find a few more of my own ideas.

Kathy Spratt, author of Mastering the Reading Section for the TOEFL iBT suggested:

  • Be more vigilant about the quality of test centers. I have seen test centers in which the seats were separated by a sheet of cardboard, which is hardly soundproof.
  • Have some appointments available in the evening. Many students work during the day and would benefit from a test that starts at six or seven in the evening.

Jane Birkenhead of Birkenhead English feels a lot like I do!  She suggested:

  • Increase the number of full ‘paid for’ practice tests. And update them frequently. It’s ridiculous that there are only 4 and the same ones have been there for years. 
  • Make the ETS TOEFL website easier to navigate. There’s no logic to it. There’s actually some decent free practice advice on there but hardly anyone can find it.
  • Rewrite the scoring rubrics using language that TOEFL students can actually understand. They take some unraveling right now.
  • Put the SpeechRater software on the ETS website so students (and teachers!) can practice. They’ve made it available on the EdAgree website but it’s a great tool for all TOEFL students so why hide it away on some obscure website that no one knows about.
  • Stop scoring speaking responses out of 4 and essays out of 5. Either score everything out of 30 and take the average or do speaking responses out of 7.5 and essays out of 15 then we can do away with the mystery of score conversion charts.

I wish I was as thoughtful as Jane.  But a few more ideas do come to me now:

  • Bring back the detailed score reports.  Students used to get separate “levels” for each writing task, and for each pair of speaking tasks.  That removed a bit of the mystery from the reports.  Now students just get a single overall writing level and a single overall speaking level.  Many students are puzzled about which specific questions are bringing down their scores.
  • For the home edition of the test, remove the instructions that say to “put on the headset.”  Because, of course, if students do that their test will be immediately cancelled. Surely this would take just 30 seconds of work at ETS headquarters.
  • Staff up the Office of Testing Integrity. Get those tests confirmed as fast as possible!

Well, I took on some outside work this month and didn’t have time for anything on July’s to-do list, but I always have time for the least popular part of this blog – the monthly “you should read more” article!

MgazinesThis month I read the April 24 issue of “Science News.”  As always, the magazine contained a ton of great articles that resemble the various reading (and listening) tasks that appear on the TOEFL.  There were a few standouts this month:

Next I read the July Issue of “History Today.”  Articles about history are really common in the reading section of the test… and not just articles about “early” human history.  Most of the content from this  magazine is behind a paywall, but a few great articles are available online:

  • China’s First International Students discusses a group of young Chinese children sent to study abroad in 1872.  It’s a fascinating story. They were pulled back by the regime earlier than planned, but many of them played important roles in the development of the country upon their return.
  • Baby Boom or Bust compares today’s low birth rates to the history of France from the 19th to mid 20th centuries.

I also read the May issue of National Geographic.  This was the best issue of NatGeo in a long time.  Here’s what caught my eye:

  • The Conservation Popularity Contest could form the basis of a type 1 writing question.  I imagine a reading about the problem of ugly endangered species being ignored, and the lecture suggesting solutions to this problem.
  • There is a tiny little space-filler about the hummingbird being a “surrogate species.”  That would make a perfect type 3 speaking question!  I can’t find a link to the little article online, but here is a little article from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
  • One of the long feature articles this month is about saving coral reefs. That could certainly form the basis of a problem/solution writing question as well.

Finally, I read the Summer 2021 issue of Modern Cat Magazine. You had better believe it. I liked:

  • The Evolution of the Social Feline.  I think I will submit my foster cat for Modern Cat’s “Cat of the Week” award.  I hope you’ll all vote for it if I post a link here.

Nellie BlyI also read some books that aren’t worth mentioning here, but I will mention the Penguin Classics collection of journalist Nellie Bly’s work.  It’s titled “Around the World in Seventy-Two Days and Other Writings.”  Bly was a pioneering New York journalist in the late 19th and early 20th century.  She was noted for her “stunt reporting” including how she got herself committed to a mental hospital in 1887 to secretly investigate the conditions there, and her recording-breaking around the world trip in 1890.

That’s all for now.  More recommendations next month.

Updated: March 5, 2023

I’ve been getting a lot of reports about TOEFL scores being put “on hold” lately.  These reports are mostly from students who took the TOEFL iBT Home Edition, but sometimes it affects people who took the test at a test center.

When this happens, your TOEFL account says something like “Tested – Scores on Hold.”  This is also called “administrative review.”

This usually happens because ProctorU or ETS detected something abnormal, and the test needs to be reviewed by an expert.  They might think that you did something inappropriate.  Or there might have been a technical problem during the test.  Usually the review process takes 2-4 weeks. After that your scores are reported or your scores are cancelled.

At the beginning of the process, ETS usually sends an email to the test-taker that tells them to wait 2-4 weeks.

To talk to someone at ETS you should contact the TOEFL Office of Testing Security.  You can call  them at the following numbers:

  • 1-800-750-6991 (in the USA and Canada)
  • +1-609-406-5430 (all other locations)

They will answer the phone from 7:30 AM to 5:30 PM Eastern Standard Time, Monday through Friday. Usually they will tell you to wait ten days and call back again, but sometimes calling speeds up the review.

You can also email them, but that might take longer. Their email address is:  or maybe:

You can also contact them using this form.

I do not recommend using the regular TOEFL customer support phone number for this problem.

Update:  Here’s a copy of the email that ETS sends when this happens.

Dear XX,

At ETS, we are highly committed to the quality and fairness of our tests. We go to great lengths to make sure that every score is accurate and valid. As part of this process, sometimes we take additional quality control steps before scores are released.

For these reasons, your TOEFL scores from the XX/XX/20XX test administration are delayed because they are under administrative review. Most of these routine reviews are completed in 2-4 weeks. In rare cases, the review may take longer. These reviews are necessary to ensure that the results are accurate and valid.

At the conclusion of the review, you will be notified of the status of your scores.  If they are released, your scores will be reported to you and to any institutions or agencies you have designated to receive them.

If you have not been notified after four weeks, you can call to inquire about your scores at 1-609-406-5430 or 1-800-750-6991, 7:30 a.m – 5:30 p.m. U.S Eastern time, Monday through Friday, or email us at

Office of Testing Security
Rosedale Road
Princeton, NJ 08541

Remember:  I’m not an employee of ETS. I’m just a guy on the Internet.



Students often ask what it means when their TOEFL account says something like:

“Scores not available”


“Tested – Scores Not Available”

This  is totally normal.  Everyone gets something like this while waiting for scores.  If your status says “scores not available,” just keep waiting.  According to ETS, it takes 4-8 calendar days for the scores to arrive (13 business days if you took the paper version).

If you still see this status after 8 days, there might be a problem.  You could contact customer support.

Sometimes students are confused, because after the test the status says:



“Checked In”

Those are also normal.   Don’t worry about them.  Sometimes you will be “checked in” for months after the test.  Just wait 4-8 days for your score.  If you wait longer than that, call ETS.

The other common status is something like:

“On Hold”


“Tested – Scores On Hold”

This status is not good.  It means your scores are in “administrative review” and you will have to wait longer.  According to ETS, you will have to wait 2 to 4 weeks after they send you an email about the hold. 

This usually happens during the TOEFL Home Edition if there was some technical problem, or if the proctoring system detected something abnormal.  Sometimes students think everything was totally fine… but the scores still get put on hold.  I’ve got an entire blog post about this issue.  Basically, though, you can call the office of testing security at ETS.

If you guys see any other statuses please let me know and I will add them to the list.

A few weeks ago I wrote about a contest EdAgree is running, where you can win a voucher to take the TOEFL test for free. I’m happy to report now that the contest has been improved.  Starting right away, winners will be able to pick from a TOEFL voucher, an IELTS voucher or a Duolingo English Test voucher!

Enter the contest here.

Winners will be selected in the first week of every month this year, starting in August.  You just need to submit your email address and a few details about your educational background to sign up.  All of my personal students have entered the contest already.

EdAgree is a unique new organization.  It is wholly owned by ETS, but operates independently.  EdAgree’s goal is to provide support for international students  from their initial decision to study abroad right through to the end of their studies.  They provide this support in a variety of ways like providing 1:1 counselling, reviewing application documents, helping with the visa process, and so on.  It’s a really neat concept.

I’m going to write a bit more about some of their tools (I’ve already touched on the SpeechRater tool they offer) in a few days.  In the meantime, take a moment to check them out for yourself and enter the contest.

On this page, I plan to collect comments from recent students!  If I have helped you this year, consider sending me your own testimonial!

You can sign up for the evaluation program over here.

January, 2021:

THANK YOU SO MUCH MICHAEL for your amazing feedback! I’m so happy to let you know that thanks to your videos and feedback, I scored 113 and 26 in speaking. I’m so grateful for you! I got Reading 29, Listening 30, Speaking 26 and writing 28. Yes, I got the required scores towards a pharmacy professional license!

-M.S, pharmacist (USA)

Thank you for your suggestions. Got 29/30 in writing.  My total test score is 115/200: Reading 30/30, Listening 28/30, Speaking 28/30, Writing 29/30. I followed your template and comments for the writing section. It really helped me in getting a high score.


Just want to thank you one more time for your patience, flexibility and support!  Now my score is 100.  We did it!


During the past few months, I benefited a lot from your course materials on your YouTube channel and website. Recently I have taken TOEFL and attained 105 with speaking and writing of 24. I want to express my gratitude for your guidance and assistance Especially for your tips for the speaking & writing section.


February, 2021

Thank you very much for all your help, comments and suggestions. Everything was very helpful. I took the TOEFL last week and thanks to you I got 28 pts on the writing part.  I will definitely recommend you!


I just want to let you know that I am admitted to MIT today! Thank you so much for your        great support, and I really liked your professional advice, which I believe contributed to my success a lot.


I am so glad that you helped me improving my score. Your comprehensive reviews of essay and the templates were the game changer for me. Thank you so very much. 


March, 2021

29 for Speaking and 27 for Writing! The total score is 113!!!!! WOW!!!


I would like to say thank you for your great templates, I already got my dream scores because of you. 


I wanted to thank you for helping me with the speaking section. I got the score that I needed. You can’t imagine how frustrated I was about not getting a 24 in the speaking section. Now I can participate in a program to get a certification as a teacher. 


I got 26 in writing thanks to your support! I finally broke through the wall!

-T.O, Japan

Just want to let you know that I got a 27 in writing on last week’s TOEFL, which is exactly the minimum score I need. Big thanks to your help! 


I got 27 in both speaking and writing!  That was so much higher than my expectations.  Thank you for your help!

-M.P, Korea

April, 2021

I am super happy to announce that I got the scores I need on the TOEFL! They are the following: R29 L30 S28 W29. I am very happy and can’t thank you enough for all the help.


Woohoo!  It worked out! I scored 113 and 30/30 in writing. You did a really good job! Thanks a lot for helping me!

-J.M, Germany

I don’t know how to thank you.  I am speechless. I finally I passed the TOEFL exam. I took the test last Friday, and results just came up. I got 25 in writing.

-M.F, pharmacist (USA)

May, 2021

I want to inform you that I got 102 points (R29/L25/S21/W27). Thank you very much for your continuous support. 

-M.O, Japan

I want to report my recent achievement. I took the TOEFL test several times after I finished your services, and eventually I got 100 in total on April 25.  Thanks to your support, I was able to improve my writing score from 21 to 26.

-H.K, Japan

I am so happy to say that I scored 27 in writing on my last TOEFL test.  After scoring 26 for three times, I have finally reached 27.

-C.C, Colombia

I have just received the score of TOEFL that I took last week, and it was 115 (W28).  Your tutoring was really helpful.  Thank you again.

-T.H, Japan

June, 2021

I got 24 points in the writing section! This would not have been possible without your help. Thank you so much, Mike! I’m so happy now 🙂

-E.J, Korea

I just received my final scores on the test, I got 30, 29, 29 and 26. So this score will be sufficient for the school I am applying for. Again, thank you so much for all your help! I really could not have done it without you.


I would like to tell you that I just reached my dream score! I scored 24 in writing and I want to say thank you! Your evaluation helped me a lot and I really appreciate your help.


July, 2021

I wanted to let you know that I was able to hit my target score on the TOEFL! The total score was 111 (R29, L26, S26, W30). All thanks to you, I got a perfect score on the writing section! I am so grateful for your help! 

-A.K, Japan

I have great news! My total score is 118! Very very happy with this result!!!! I just wanted to thank you a lot for your service and contribution. My only method of studying was to use your blogs + evaluation service + actual TOEFL materials for practice. You deserve part of this merit! I’ll make sure to recommend your materials to others.


I am contacting you because I have just received my scores! R30, L29, S28 and W30!!! I am SHOCKED! Again, huge thanks for your priceless contribution to the online English language learning community. If I ever need to retake the TOEFL after my current diploma has expired, I will definitely resort to your materials once more.


To get a job interview, I need a score higher than 95 as soon as possible. Your template was so amazing that I could reach 100 on the first attempt! The second attempt  was 105! Both times my writing score was 27!  The writing score was essential for me to reach my goal.

-Y.S, Japan

A quick update! I got 26 in the writing section , and I got admission offers from UBC and Yale! Can not thank you enough. You really helped me a lot. 

-J.C, Taiwan

I am pleased to inform that I am planning to study at NYU Law School from this autumn.
Without your diligent support for my TOEFL preparation, I would not be admitted to NYU.

-Y.G, Japan

August, 2021

I took the TOEFL on 20th July and my scores were released today. I scored 117 overall with 28 in the writing section. It is because of your articles on TOEFL Resources that I was able to score way above I ever imagined I could (I’m not a native English speaker). Your blog on how to approach the integrated writing task was a HUGE help and it boosted my confidence. Your video on how to come up with ideas for the writing section was really helpful too. I’m grateful to you and TOEFL Resources. Thank you so much.


Hi Michael, I finally got my TOEFL scores.  They are as follows: R-28, L-30, S-30, and W-29. Thank you for your guidance.


September, 2021

I want to say thanks for helping me out with writing. My score is 23 and my program requires 21. BEFORE your support in writing I got 18 twice. Thank you! Thank you so much!


Finally, we did it!  I received my results and we got 22 points in the writing section. Thank you for your help! It is much appreciated.


I finished the test 10 days ago and got my result today. I am happy that I scored 105 overall! The writing score was 28. Thank you so much for your evaluation! I did what you told me, which was not to write too many fancy words and to use the words naturally. I focused on staying on-topic and checked my grammar while writing. I learnt a lot from your model essays and YouTube videos too.  A big thank you to you!

-C.X, Malaysia

Thanks to you, I got 24 in the writing section! I’m pretty sure I couldn’t reach my goal without your help! I’m so satisfied with your service! I have definitely improved my writing skills thanks to you. Your service was worth more than  price!! I will definitely recommend that my friends use your service if they tell me they are preparing for the TOEFL.

-S.I, Japan

I took the TOEFL test on 9/4, and the result of the writing section was 23. The previous score of my writing section was 17, so I improved a lot thanks to you! It was surprising that it took only two months to get a six point improvement. Thank you very much!

-S.T, Japan

October, 2021

I want to tell you that I got 25 on the writing section of the TOEFL test. This is my very first try on the test, and I don’t think I could do this without your help. Thank you so much! 


I just finished the exam and I got 27 in writing. Thank you so much for the evaluation and help. I appreciate your work!


November, 2021

I just got my scores and I got 25 in writing! I’ve reached my goal. It’s such a pleasure to work with you. Your essay evaluation service is definitely worth it! You helped me to notice mistakes that I didn’t see before.


I’ve got good news today, which is that I achieved my target TOEFL score  on November 13. The score was 100 (R30, L26, S21, W23). I appreciate your intense support!

-Y.O, Japan

I want to thank you for your help!! Regarding the writing section, the manner in which I wrote was consistent with the last essay I submitted to you, so I would guess they really liked your template! 


December, 2021

I took the test last week and got 25 in the writing section! I appreciate your support. My overall score of this time is 102 (R25, L30, S22, W25). I’m thrilled to achieve my target score. Thank you again. Your sophisticated support helped me improve my writing skills, which increased my possibility of getting permission to enroll in my dream school.

-R.N, Japan

I scored 117 thanks to you! I really feel that I got the hang of what TOEFL writing is like.  Thanks to your help, I think I’ll be able to go to a Ivy league school with a bit of luck.

-H.S, Korea

I received my TOEFL score today. My writing score is 26 and I am quite satisfied with that. Thanks for your advice about how to improve my writing.

-M.T, Japan


Here’s an interesting story. British Council has sold its stake in IELTS in India to IDP. As you probably know, IELTS is a partnership between British Council (non-profit), IDP (for-profit) and Cambridge University.  British Council  netted 130 million GBP (180 million USD).

Some people are unhappy.  Others, presumably, are quite happy.

Note that British Council has sold only the operations in India.  I guess it still retains its stake in the test outside of India.


I often hear things like this:

I’ve been speaking English for twenty years, and I only got a 78 on the TOEFL.  The test is bullsh–t.

And things like this:

My crazy uncle Bob is a native speaker, and he only got a 22 in the reading section.  The test is obviously unfair.

But here’s the thing.  The TOEFL is not just an English test.  I know, “TOEFL” is supposed to stand for “Test of English as a Foreign Language.”  But check the ETS website.  They don’t use that name anymore.  You won’t find it in the Official Guide anymore.  These days, TOEFL doesn’t stand for anything.  It’s just the “TOEFL Test.” 

Even though Uncle Bob is a native speaker, it is likely that he’s incapable of functioning in an academic environment.  Indeed, most native speakers aren’t.  I suspect if you pull 100 random people off the street in the USA and give them the same TOEFL reading set, their average score will be quite low.

Keep that in mind before you get frustrated by your TOEFL score.  The score is meant to predict your performance in an English-medium university.  That’s it.  It isn’t a test of how well you communicate in English in general.  

This is what test designers refer to as “validity.”  They argue that you can’t just toss a bunch of grammar and vocabulary questions on a test (like the original TOEFL) and expect the scores to be useful for any real purpose.  The questions need to have a connection to the users of test scores, and be valid for their intended purpose.

In 2008 ETS published a 370 book to make this case (“Building a Validity Argument for the Test of English as a Foreign Language,” Carol A Chapelle, et al).  Ask your TOEFL teacher if they have a copy.

In a more recent book, Chapelle says:

Test developers, researchers, and anyone responsible for assessing human capacities would readily agree that validity is their central concern.  Similarly, teachers, employers, students, parents and researchers want the tests they use to be valid, and they expect professionals in educational and psychological testing to know how to evaluate a test’s validity. (“Argument- Based Testing in Validation and Assessment,” Carol A Chapelle)

This is why the TOEFL is really hard, and this is why the TOEFL is really popular with university administrators.

And this sort of thing is why there are a whole bunch of different tests.  The IELTS General Test is intended to assess language skills needed by immigrants and people in non-academic training.  The TOEIC test is meant to assess the potential of people to function in business settings.

Heck, ETS seems to be all-in on this concept.  They recently purchased Pipplet, which makes boutique language tests.  Including tests for: customer service agents, consultants, retail workers, medical professionals, startup employees… and more!  Some day they’ll have a different test for everyone!

What Does This Mean for Students?

It means that you need to prepare for the TOEFL.  Don’t just count on your amazing English skills. You can’t just prepare for a couple of days and expect an amazing score.  You need to study. 

The Future

Some people think this is an old-fashioned idea.  Maybe they are right. Maybe language tests won’t be so hung up on this conception of validity in the future.

In fact, according to the IPO documents recently published by Duolingo, that company wants its “Duolingo English Test” to be used for university admission, immigration AND workforce placement!  The idea of an identical test for all three purposes seems antithetical to the above definition of validity.  This sort of idea is why the Duolingo folks seem to be able to get a rise out of ETS in a way that the IELTS and Pearson people cannot.

A couple of years ago I recommended that all of my teacher friends invest in the Duolingo IPO, as I thought the company’s little-known English test would hit the mainstream in four or five years.  Sadly, the cat is out of the bag on that front, and I am not sure the company is a great buy.  

Anyway, there are a few fun details about the Duolingo English Test to be found in their IPO documents, filed with the SEC just a few days ago.  Here’s what caught my eye:

  • In 2020, the test was taken about 344,000 times for about 15 million dollars in revenue. 
  • In 2020, 10% of the company’s revenue came from the test.  That reached 11 for the beginning of 2021.
  • The company hopes to extend the test to the immigration and workforce testing sectors.
  • Duolingo, as a company, lost 15.8 million dollars in 2020.  I can only imagine how frustrated ETS feels having to compete with a company that doesn’t really need to make money.
  • Duolingo expects schools to continue accepting the test after the pandemic ends.

Well, I reported a few days ago  on the impressive increase to the mean TOEFL score found in the data released by ETS.  I expressed some puzzlement at the increase, as it is pretty huge.  I’m still not entirely certain why it happened, but after talking it out with some experts, my conclusions are:

  1. The change is mostly due to the shorter test.  I guess the shorter version is “easier.” While the reported mean score did not change in 2019, that was partly because of rounding, and a drop in the mean writing score. If we look carefully there were fractional increases in 2019 which hint at a trend.
  2. ETS may have adjusted the e-rater which scores essays. That’s a normal thing. I think they are on iteration 19 or something like that. I suspect that caused writing scores to increase. That makes up 25% of the overall increase… but the shorter test should have no effect on it.  Perhaps they wanted to address the long-term drop in average writing scores.
  3. The increase is caused in large part by China (presumably the number one TOEFL market) and Korea (presumably the number two TOEFL market). Increases in the mean score probably reflect advances in preparation techniques in those countries. Coincidentally I spent the month before the score data release reporting on those advances.

Let me know what you think in the comments.

TOEFL Score data for 2020 is available!  As regular readers of the blog will know, this is my favorite day of the year!  You can download your copy from ETS.

Scores are way up this year.  I don’t know why.

The overall mean (average) score is now 87.  That is an increase of four points, which is quite a big jump.  Here’s the history of the average TOEFL score:

  • 2006: 79
  • 2007: 78
  • 2008: 79
  • 2009: 79
  • 2010: 80
  • 2011 (not available)
  • 2012 (not available)
  • 2013: 81
  • 2014: 80
  • 2015: 81
  • 2016: 82
  • 2017: 82
  • 2018: 83 
  • 2019: 83
  • 2020: 87

As you can see, it took thirteen years for the average score to increase from 79 to 83.  That jump was replicated in 2020 alone.

Obviously this year there are also large jumps in the section scores:

  • The mean reading score is now 22.2 (+1.0)
  • The mean listening score is now 22.3 (+1.4)
  • The mean speaking score is now 21.2 (+.6)
  • The mean writing score is now 21.5 (+1.0)

Last year, the section score changes were much smaller. They were (respectively): +.4, +.3, +.1, -.2.

The jumps in 2020 alone are comparable to the jumps I recorded in the nine years from 2010 to 2019.

As you guys know, I like to study geographic trends, particularly those in China, Korea and Japan.  Here’s what I spotted:

  • The mean score in Korea is now 86 (+3)
  • The mean score in China is now 87 (+6) !!!
  • The mean score in Japan is now 73 (+1)
  • The mean score in Taiwan is now 85 (+2)

I must point out that in the thirteen years between 2006 and 2019 the average score in China increased by five points.  In 2020 alone the increase was six points.

Scores in other key markets have increased as well:

  • The mean score in Brazil is now 90 (+3)
  • The mean score in India is now 96 (+1)
  • The mean score in the United States is now 93 (+2)

The top performing country this year is Austria, with an average score of 102 (+2)

It appears that China is driving much of the overall increase.  In case you are curious, the section increases there are: Reading + 2, Listening + 2,  Speaking no change, Writing +2.

I’m going to do some more digging and some more calling in the weeks ahead.  I want to know more about these dramatic changes.

Hey, this is pretty awesome.  The folks at EdAgree are giving away two vouchers for the TOEFL iBT every month until the end of the year!  Winners will be able to take the test for free!

You can register for the contest at their page.  All it takes is an email address! But just enter one time.  Winners will be selected at the beginning of each month, and will be contacted via email.

I’ve written about EdAgree a few times here in the past.  They are an ETS spin-off which helps international students connect to universities in America.  My blog post about their SpeechRater practice tool was really popular with visitors.  They’ve also got workshops on topics including how to write a personal statement for your university application.  Actually, I think I might sit in on that seminar next week