It is the end of the month, and that means it is time for my favorite part of the blog… the monthly “you should read more” column!  Every month I I recommend a few things you can read to improve your academic reading skills.  I mostly focus on short non-fiction magazine articles, but sometimes (like today) I mention longer materials.  Everything I recommend is something I, personally, read in the previous month.  And to keep things a bit more unpredictable, I only mention stuff that I am able to track down in hard copy form.

First up, this month I read Tara Westover’s memoir “Educated.” That book was one of the best-selling books of 2018, with recommendations from all of the usual celebrities: Bill Gates, Barak Obama, Oprah (and more).  Normally I avoid stuff like that because I’m a snob, but this book was recommended by a reader of this blog.  In fact, it was recommended in the comments section of the very first one of these columns!  Basically, I will read anything you guys recommend, as long as I can find a cheap (or free) copy of it. The book is actually quite good, and not at all what I expected.  It tells the true story of Tara Westover, who grew up in an abusive family presided over by her paranoid survivalist father.  Tara’s experience is more terrifying than I expected it to be.  Again and again and again the book depicts horrific events that the young Tara lived through.  Besides that, there is an important message about the beneficial effects of education and how it helps us to expand our world.  I think that many of the eager and talented students that read this blog will appreciate it.  You can buy a copy on Amazon in a zillion different formats.  Sadly it is too recent to be on the Open Library.

Next, I read the January 2022 issue of “Apollo – the International Art Magazine.”  I started reading this magazine last month, and I am really digging it.  A few articles stood out:

  • The Shock of the New Towns is about the “new town” movement in the United Kingdom after World War II.  It talks about how the government there dealt with a housing shortage by constructing wholly new towns in parts of the country.  These were unique in that they were heavily planned and not organically created in a hodge-podge like most towns and cities across the world.  This exactly the sort of topic that the TOEFL writers would use on the test. I bet that over the past 17 years of the TOEFL iBT it has appeared at least once!
  • Has the Humboldt Forum Got it Horribly Wrong? is a longer article that discusses the debate around whether European museums ought to display cultural works acquired (or, some would say, stolen) from Africa and Asia.  It also discusses how they can be displayed if they choice is made to keep doing so.  This is too controversial to be on the TOEFL, but I can picture a third-party prep book turning it into an integrated writing question.  In any case, it is great academic reading practice, and quite interesting.

Finally, I read the Winter 21/22 issue of “Modern Dog.”  Yeah, last month I said that I had no more animal magazines coming… but I was wrong!  There was one more. In between advertisements for canine CBD supplements I read a very nice profile of the Berger Picard dog.  It’s basically academic reading practice.  And highly recommended if you like dogs.

That’s it for January, but check in next month.  I’ll list a travel book I’m currently reading and something from a new magazine subscription I managed to get for cheap.

 

Writing numbers properly can be tricky. There are a few things to keep in mind.

Remember that you should use a hyphen only in compound numbers between 21 and 99. Don’t use a hyphen when numbers are greater than 99. So you should write:

  • thirtythree
  • one hundred and thirtythree
  • five thousand and seventynine

You should not write:

  • seven-hundred
  • one-hundred and thirty-three
  • five-thousand and seventy-nine

Those hyphens are incorrect because they appear in numbers greater than 99.

The use of “and” is also tricky. In British English we always use “and” between hundred/thousand/million/etc and numbers below 100. As in:

  • seven hundred and five
  • two million and ten
  • six thousand, five hundred and nine

In American English it is acceptable to omit “and.” As in:

  • seven hundred five
  • two million ten

I wonder, though, if the British “and” is becoming more common among American speakers and writers.

The TOEFL Home Edition is a wonderful addition to the TOEFL family of tests.  According to a recent presentation given by ETS it has been taken more than 500,000 times since March of 2020. Students all over the world have enjoyed the flexibility that the home edition provides, especially in today’s tumultuous times.

That said, I do get messages from students with scores that have been put “on hold” or have been cancelled. Test takers must understand that this is always a possibility when taking a remotely proctored exam.  Fortunately, with some planning and effort the chance of something like this happening can be reduced.  Today’s blog is about what you can do to have a comfortable test experience and ensure that your scores are not delayed.

(Updated April 8, 2022)

Part One – Before the Test

Read the Instructions from ETS

Okay, this one might be too obvious.  However, I do get a lot of e-mails from people who clearly haven’t read the instructions.  First you should read the “before the test begins” instructions.   Then you should read the “checking in” instructions.  Finally, you should read the “during the test” instructions. Don’t get these instructions from third-party websites and YouTube videos, since the test has changed a few times since it first launched and many videos are out of date.

Test Your Computer and Equipment

Make sure your computer equipment is working properly before you take the test. The easiest way to do this is to run the ProctorU online equipment test.  But don’t stop there!  You should manually test your microphone. Make a test recording using something like “Voice Recorder” (Windows) or “Voice Memos” (Mac OS) and actually listen to it. How does it sound? If your audio quality is poor, you should get a new microphone. Microphone problems are a major cause of cancelled scores. Remember that the online equipment test just checks if your microphone is receiving input; it does not test the actual quality of its recordings.

Test Your Writing Materials

Writing on a whiteboard or a transparent sheet can be tricky at first.  Experiment a bit with different surfaces, markers and erasers before you begin the test. Figure out what you feel most comfortable with. I highly recommend that you get a nice thin marker.  A thick marker will lead to constant erasing.

Shut Down Background Apps

Shut down everything else that is running on your system before you start the test.  Certain types of applications could cause your scores to be put on hold. The proctor is supposed to shut down everything, but don’t depend on them to do that.  Do it yourself! Pay special attention to stuff related to video and screen capture.   Some of the worst programs are: Zoom, Skype, TeamViewer, Microsoft Teams, and Apple Remote Desktop.  The control panel for your NVIDIA graphics card might be a problem as well.

Warning:  A few people have reported that Grammarly has provided grammar corrections during their test.  This could result in a score cancellation.  If you have Grammarly, I recommend that you uninstall it  before starting the test.

Update:  I’ve published a guide all about shutting stuff down.

Put a “Stay Out” (and “Shut up”) Sign on Your Door

Before starting the test put a sign on your door telling everyone else in the house to leave it closed at all times.  The sign should also tell people to avoid talking to you at all times.  Remind everyone that even if your test is scheduled to last three hours, you might still be taking it four hours later, or five hours later.  They should not assume that you have finished and that it is okay to open the door or to talk to you.  I’ve gotten many reports about test scores being cancelled after a well-meaning mom decided it was okay to open the door!

Part Two – During the Test

Follow the Instructions

It is awkward to write this, but here goes.  I’ve gotten several reports that uniformed proctors have allowed students to break the rules… and thus caused scores to get cancelled.  Don’t let this happen during your test.  Don’t take an 11 minute break just because the proctor says it is okay.  Don’t start the test without showing ID just because the proctor says it is okay.  Don’t drink water during the test just because the proctor says it is okay.  Those things are all against the rules.  Doing them could result in a score cancellation.

Don’t Touch Your Phone

You might use your phone at the beginning of the test to give the proctor a “mirror” look at your screen before you begin.  After you do that, follow the proctor’s instructions and put it away.  Don’t touch it after that.  Most importantly, don’t pick it up when you begin your break.  Leave it right where it is during the break! After the break the proctor will ask you to show them the phone.  It better be in the same place.  I have received several reports about test scores being cancelled because a student absent-mindedly picked up their phone while stepping out of the room to take a break. 

Don’t Look Around

You can look at your monitor and you can look at your notes.  That’s it.  Don’t stare off to the side or up at the ceiling as you think about hard questions.  If you look around the room, you could trigger the automated anti-cheating software.  That could result in your scores being put on hold.

Part Three – During the Break

Stay Silent During the Break

Don’t talk to anyone during the break.  Remember that your microphone will be on.  Several students have reported score cancellations and delays because the microphone caught them having a conversation with someone in another room during the break.  Likewise, tell everyone in the house that they must not speak during the break (even better: don’t speak during the entire test).

Part Four – After the Test

Wait 6 to 10 Days for Your Score

Your score will arrive 6 to 10 days after you take the test (not counting the day of the test). Your PDF score report will be available 2 days after that. Your recipients will get the scores a few days after that. Be patient.

If there is a delay, your ETS account will indicate that your scores are “on hold” and you will get an email from ETS.  Generally this takes about 2-4 weeks to resolve (following the initial email).  Sometimes it takes much longer.  The longest delay I’ve heard about is 74 days following the test.

You can contact the Office of Testing Integrity to request additional information.

 

 

There is some fascinating new data about the TOEFL iBT Home Edition available from the International Education Association of Australia.  I’m leaving on a holiday in just a moment, but I want to quickly draw attention to a few tantalizing data points.  Please note:

  1. The Home Edition is even more popular than I thought.  At least among Australia-bound students, by June of 2021 it accounted for 40% of testing.  I bet it is even higher now.
  2. Note how the mean score of Australia-bound students was 93.4 in 2019.  That is a bit higher than I would have guessed, but only a little.  You can also see the mean scores for each section.
  3. Next, note how the mean score of Australia-bound students taking the test center version of the TOEFL iBT from January to June 2021 was 94.6.  That’s a healthy jump, but it is typical of the fact that the mean increases almost every year in most countries.  This our very first look at 2021 data, by the way.
  4. But note that the mean score of Australia-bound students taking the Home Edition of the TOEFL iBT from January to June 2021 was 96.9!  More than two points higher than people taking it at a test center.  That’s wild.
  5. For people taking the Home Edition reading scores were 0.8 higher, listening scores were 1.0 higher and writing scores were 1.2 higher.
  6. Interestingly, speaking scores on the Home Edition were 0.6 lower.  That’s curious, but I think it means my advice about getting a good microphone and testing it is solid.  I can say, from experience, that trying to assess a spoken answer recording with a crappy microphone can be a frustrating experience.  My “scores” tend to be lower when assessing students who decline to use a proper recording device.  This is worthy of further study by ETS, I think.

Does this mean the TOEFL Home Edition is “easier”?  No, of course not.  It is the same test.  Does this mean that the TOEFL Home Edition is a more pleasant testing experience for test takers?  Probably.  I suspect that students who can test in a comfortable and quiet environment get higher scores.  Being able to test at a time of day when they have more energy likely helps as well.

It is worth noting that Chinese students were taking the test exclusively at test centers during this part of 2021, which might also account for the difference.   The mean score of Chinese students in 2020 was 87 points, the same as the worldwide mean.

Remember that we have worldwide data for 2020 which showed a massive increase (four points) to the worldwide mean score which, at the time, puzzled me.  I think this new report explains that jump and it makes me think there will be a small jump in the 2021 data… and another big one in the 2022 data that will reflect an environment where Chinese students have access to the Home Edition.

The TOEFL iBT Information Bulletin was updated recently.  Just a couple of changes are worth mentioning:

  • The Bulletin now confirms that the ID required at the test center merely needs to match the name on the ID given during the registration process.  Previously, the bulletin stated that it needed to be the exact same ID.  This was a point of contention for some people in the past.
  • The Bulletin, curiously, refers to “video” a few times.  It says that score recipients will be able to “view your personal video statement” and the confidentiality section now refers to “personal information, photograph, and video.”  Perhaps ETS will add a personal video statement to the end of the iBT, like the TOEFL Essentials Test.

Hey, it’s my third favorite day of the year – the day of the ETS annual audit!

You can grab it by searching the Federal Audit Clearinghouse.  It will likely be up on ProPublica later this month.

Here’s what I learned:

  • ETS’s total assets are up about 10% to $2,083,345,000.  I believe that is an all-time high for ETS.
  • Operating revenues are up about 5% to $1,071,304.  That is definitely not an all-time high.
  • Operating expenses are up very slightly.  
  • ETS’s investments are valued at $1,627,711. That is an increase of 10%.
  • The year’s acquisitions are described, but they aren’t specifically named.  Nothing seems out of the ordinary, though.  I think they refer to (in order): Pipplet, CIEE, Vericant and GradSchoolMatch.
  • Some divestures are described.  I have no idea what they refer to.
  • ETS’s effective tax rate was 1.7% in 2021, which is up from 2020 when it was… lower than that.

Information about ETS’s current financial situation is limited to this audit as, sadly, publication of 990 forms from the IRS is delayed.  But if you want to go digging into old data, you can do so over here.

My friends at EdAgree are holding a Virtual University Fair on January 21.  You can register over here.  More than twenty partner schools will have representatives on hand, and participants will have a chance to interact with them live at virtual “booths.”  There will also be presentations about how to successfully navigate the application process.

Readers of this blog may be particularly interested in a presentation about the cost of perusing higher education in the United States and how to find and apply for scholarships.  I certainly get a lot of questions about financial support.

I understand, also, that EdAgree is offering a $500 scholarship for students who enroll in one of the partner schools.  That’s a nice development.