Do you want to read a 400 page book (plus an index) all about your friends at ETS?  Well, maybe you should!  This month I read Nicholas Lemann’s “The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy.”  Writing in a fairly  accessible tone, Lehman describes the founding of ETS in the 1940s and the goals that the creators of the standardized testing movement had in mind when the radically reformed how American universities (especially the good ones) admitted students. These reforms were borne out of a desire to foster a “meritocracy” of talented people which they hoped would emerge from the universities and shape the post-war nation.  Needless to say, things didn’t work out as well as they hoped they would, but the ideas behind their plan still loom large in American society. Part of the book examines the movement for affirmative action at American universities, which Lemann seems to think came about as a result of their heavy reliance on SAT scores. 

This is a valuable chronicle of a unique part of American history which I don’t think has been sufficiently documented. As Lehmann notes later in the book, all of this stuff was put into place without political purview or open debate.  Instead, a small number of men made some important choices that have had a major impact on American society for almost eighty years.  And counting.

A few passages of the book are worth repeating here.  Just for fun.

Regarding ETS founder Henry Chauncey:

“He didn’t believe that he and his colleagues had been explicit social engineers; they were simply trying to help the country” (120).

Though the book was written 23 years ago, much of it sounds chillingly contemporary:

“The psychological side [of being a new-style meritocrat” was… a powerful experience – being constantly evaluated as you grew up and then being admitted into a special group. One’s impulse was to go through life repeating the fundamental cycle of gratification: selective admission, followed by membership in a tight, reassuring (though rivalrous) cadre of similarly chosen people. […] At the same time the idea that you might be a national leader was still alive. You wanted assured success and security, but not just that. The most popular professions were not dentistry or certified public accountancy.  You also wanted to matter, to be admired, to take a part in shaping American society.” (186)


“By the 1970s there were already signs that the meritocratic order was not going to be so popular in American society as its founders had anticipated. […] The people selected for the elite were starting to look less like selfless leaders. They were on their way to making a lot of money, they took advantage of the tradition of draft exemptions for the brainy to get out of serving in the armed forces during the Vietnam War, they held themselves apart. And what had they done, really, to earn such privilege or authority other than to get high test scores and get good grades? The astonishing rise of Ronald Reagan demonstrated that political careers were being built by people who were exploiting public resentment of this new elite.” (187)

Those of you interested in buying a copy should seek out the paperback edition, which includes a new afterword. That afterword takes the form of a fairly scathing indictment of using IQ tests like the SAT to select who gets put on the path to joining the “elite” of society.  I won’t type it up here as I suppose I’ve quoted too much already.  But seek it out.  It is quite an essay.  Heck, if you call me on the phone I’ll read it to you.

A good companion to this book is “None of the Above” by David Owen. It was written about 15 years earlier and covers some of the same territory, but with a more irreverent tone. I reviewed that on Goodreads some months ago. Perhaps I’ll paste that review into the blog in April.

I fear I’ve ruined the “You Should Read More” series!  It wasn’t supposed to be a book review column!  But I did read some magazines this week.  Here are a few article recommendations to hone your academic reading skills:

  • The February 2022 issue of “Apollo” has a wonderful article about the history of Kabuki in Japan. Articles about history are commonly used in the reading section of the TOEFL, and I think dance has come up a few times.
  • The January 24, 2022 issue of “The New Yorker” has an interesting article about the book which the movie “Bambi” was based on.  Turns out that the book is quite unlike the film. The fun thing about most articles on the New Yorker website is that you can listen to them, read by an actual human being (not a computer voice).


There are new reading question types on the Duolingo English Test the starting today! 

These are called “Interactive Reading Questions.”

When you take the test, you’ll now get two short reading passages with six questions each.  One passage will be a narrative style reading (it will tell a story), and the other will be expository (like a short academic article).  You will have seven or eight minutes to complete all of the questions for a given passage.  Interestingly, you may not get to see the whole passage at first.  Instead, parts of it will be revealed at you move through the questions.

Question types are:

  • complete the sentence (pick best words to finish a sentence in the reading)
  • complete the passage (pick the best sentence to finish the reading)
  • highlight the answer (locate the answer to a given question and highlight it within the passage)
  • identify the main idea of the passage
  • select a title for the passage.

These questions are all showing up now in the free practice test provided by Duolingo, so you can check out examples if you like.  I’ll take the practice test a few more times and update this post if necessary.

The test will still be one hour in total. To make room for this new content, fewer instances of the existing question types will be included.  Note that no question types have been removed.  You’ll just get fewer of each.

Update: DET has a YouTube video that describes the questions.

ETS has a new president and CEO.  Amit Sevak, most recently of Mindset Global, will replace Walt MacDonald who is retiring after 38 years with the organization (eight as President/CEO).  Longtime blog readers will note that ETS named a new CEO in April of last year and a new CIO in November.  Notably, all of these hires have been from outside of the organization.  These moves bring to mind the success that ETS enjoyed in the early 2000s after scouring the corporate world for new hires. 

Students often write a single sentence that contains the conjunctions “although” and “but”. This is probably a bad idea. You should just pick one.

You can write:

“Although I studied hard, I couldn’t pass the test.”

And you can write:

“I studied hard, but I couldn’t pass the test.”

Can you see how each of those sentences has just one of the conjunctions?

Don’t write a sentence with both of them. You shouldn’t write:

“Although I studied hard, but I couldn’t pass the test.”

I suppose this is the same as combining “because” and “so” in the same sentence, but that’s a topic for another post.

I see a lot of errors with “ago” and “earlier.” It can be tricky to explain the difference, but I will do my best.

Use “ago” to refer to a point relative to the present. For instance, I can say:

“I met my wife four years ago.”

That means I met my wife four years before the present time (now).

Or I can say:

“Simon was born in Chicago twenty-five years ago.”

That means Simon was born in Chicago twenty-five years before the present time (now).

Don’t use “earlier” to talk about a point relative to the present.

Use “earlier” to talk about something that happened relative to a particular time in the past. For instance I can say:

“I met my wife in 1982. Four years earlier, I had been dating Suzy.”

That means I dated Suzy four years before 1982.

Do you get what I mean? Here’s another:

“Simon was born in Chicago twenty-five years ago. His parents had moved there four years earlier.”

That means Simon’s parents moved there four years before Simon was born.

Honestly, I am not sure if it is better to use the past perfect tense of the simple past tense for the “earlier” parts. The past perfect tense sounds a bit clunky in the second example, but that’s just my opinion.

Use the past tense to refer to extinct animals like dinosaurs.

Pterosaurs are extinct, so you should write:

“Pterosaurs were cold-blooded like modern reptiles.”

Don’t write:

“Pterosaurs are cold-blooded like modern reptiles.”

The sea cow is extinct, so you should write:

“Kelp was the main food source of the sea cow.”

Don’t write:

“Kelp is the main food source of the sea cow.”

You might think this is a very obscure point, but I fix this sort of error every week when I review student essays. ETS loves to create integrated writing questions about dinosaurs and other ancient animals.

Students often ask if they can take notes or write templates on their scratch paper during the ten minute break in the middle of the TOEFL.  The answer is no.  You are not allowed to write anything during the break.

Here’s what the TOEFL Bulletin for 2021-22 says (on page 23):

The scratch paper is provided for appropriate note taking during the timed sections of the test. Scratch paper is not to be used before the test, during the untimed sections of the test, or during breaks.

On the next page, it says:

You cannot use the scratch paper provided or notes of any kind to prepare your essay at the beginning of the test or during breaks.

And then on page 25 it says that your test will be stopped for:

Using the scratch paper provided or notes of any kind to prepare your essay during breaks.

Later on the same page it says that your test will be stopped for:

Attempting to remove scratch paper or a piece of scratch paper from the testing room or using scratch paper before the test, during the untimed sections, or during breaks.

Get the point?

I should also mention that you aren’t allowed to access your phone during the break.  Here’s what the bulletin says (on page 24):

You cannot access your phone or other devices during the test session or during breaks to check messages, make a call, check the time or for any other reason.

It looks like ETS is launching a new product to help teachers.  It’s called the “Mentor’s Guide to the TOEFL iBT Test” and is now listed on the “Preparing Your Students” section of the TOEFL website.

Here’s what the site says:

NEW! Mentor’s Guide to the TOEFL iBT® Test – set up an 8-week class for your students with this private online course where you can. The Mentor’s Guide gives you the opportunity to monitor your students’ progress.

I don’t have any details about this program at the moment, but I will try to track them down.  

The biggest question I have right now is “where I can what?”

The folks at Duolingo are “working with partners including UNHCR and Ukraine Global Scholars to expand its Access Program and provide fee waivers so Ukrainian students can take an English proficiency test required for their university applications.”

This is the sort of thing I’ve lobbied my contacts in Big Test to provide in times of crisis – most recently when the government in Afghanistan fell. I’ve come close to convincing them to implement such a program, but have always hit a bureaucratic brick wall in the end. I’m glad to see that Duolingo appears more open to the possibility than other testing firms.

When a single step in the process of becoming an international student is missed (say, a standardized test) sometimes the whole process must be repeated from the beginning. That can take a whole year, or more. Testing organizations must be more nimble and step up to provide more support when needed.

I took the TOEFL Home Edition the other day and got thirty points in the writing section.  I wrote about 800 words in the independent task, and about 600 words in the integrated task.  I got no penalty for exceeding the recommended word count.  Is that clear?  You can write as much as you want.  There is no penalty!

For what it’s worth, I did not write a conclusion in the integrated task, and I mentioned reading details first in each body paragraph (before the lecture details).  Those approaches are fine too.

Kathy Spratt recently sent me an M.A. thesis by Zhi (Stone) Chen of Iowa State University. The thesis investigates some of the TOEFL preparation behaviors of repeater test-takers in China, and is the best investigation of the TOEFL I’ve seen in recent years.  Everyone should check it out. Reading about test-takers in China is of particular importance as Chinese test-takers are kicking ass nowadays.  Their scores are going up and up.  In 2020, the mean score in China increased by six points. 

I want to highlight and comment on a few of Chen’s findings.

General Findings

  • The literature review suggests that TOEFL coaching and preparation schools are ineffective. That comes as no surprise to me.
  • Nowadays, online communities are more popular.  Again, this is no great surprise.  Self-directed learning is probably the best way to tackle the TOEFL.
  • The most popular preparation method?  Using the TPOs.  It is unfortunate that the TPOs are only widely available within China.  I know that some are available for people outside China,  but the difference in availability is notable: 69 sets for free in China vs five sets that cost $40 each in the rest of the world.  I hope ETS acknowledges this disparity some day. The thesis includes quotes from test-takers who raved about the usefulness of the TPOs.  At the end of the day, I suspect that easy access to TPOs is the “secret” to score increases in China.  But that’s my conclusion, not the author’s.

New Preparation Techniques 

Chen mentions a few preparation techniques not discussed in existing literature:

  • The article describes how many students use “speed listening” to prepare for the speaking section. Basically, they grab the audio from a sample lecture (TPOs, I guess) and listen to it at normal speed.  Then the listen at 1.2 speed.  Then they listen at 1.4 speed.  The goal is to be able to understand every word at 1.4 speed, so that on test day the lectures sound like they are in “slow motion.”  I suppose they repeat this process with dozens of lectures.  One student mentioned doing this with the “60 Second Science” podcast from Scientific American.
  • The article also describes how a “new” preparation method is getting feedback regarding their practice essays.
  • Dictation and shadow-speaking are also mentioned.

I do encourage you to check out the thesis for yourself to explore which preparation methods were deemed most effective overall, and in each section of the test.