Students preparing for the TOEFL often ask something like:

Should I mention the lecture first in each body paragraph? ETS wants me to mention the lecture first, right?  That’s what the instructions say!

My answer is always no. You can do that if you want, but it isn’t mandatory. 

I’m not sure where this misconception came from, but the truth is that ETS doesn’t prefer that test-takers mention the lecture first in each body paragraph.  In the past, I’ve suggested that students check out the Official Guide to the TOEFL and the two Official TOEFL iBT Tests books where the examples usually mention the reading first in each body paragraph.

Check out the screenshots from the new Official Prep Course for the TOEFL sold by ETS.


Note how the ETS material specifically recommends mentioning the reading first in each body paragraph. Note how the template suggested by ETS does the same.

You can mention the lecture first if you like (as is noted at the end of the second screenshot), but don’t assume that ETS prefers it that way.

If you can afford it, the ETS course is a helpful product. It dispels some other weird urban legends, which I might highlight here in the days ahead.

I spent most of this month traveling, so just a short column this month.  Sorry!

I read the August 2021 issue of Scientific American, and spotted a few relevant articles:

  • I enjoyed “Play is Serious Business for Elephants,” a long piece about the importance of play for elephants (and many other animal species).  ETS loves to include content on the test about animals.  I can imagine a reading passage about animal play, or a type four speaking question about “two ways that play is beneficial to animals.”  Read this one!
  • I also liked “Stuttering Stems from Problems in Brain Wiring, Not Personalities.” Obviously ETS will never include this sort of topic on the real test, but it is interesting reading for anyone studying for a test that requires rapid delivery of speech without any disfluencies.
  • Also interesting was “The Forgotten History of the World’s First Trans Clinic.”  Again, ETS would never touch this topic with a 20-foot pole but the article is a great read.  It is a short look at the “Institute for Sexual Research” that existed for a short time in Germany before World War Two.  It is a reminder that progress does not always come in a continuous line.  Sometimes we move forward and backward as time marches on.  Perhaps, in some cases, our forefathers were more progressive than we are today.

At the Labuan Bajo airport, I found a copy of the May 2019 issue of National Geographic.  What a find!  Sadly, most of the content from that issue is now behind a paywall, but here’s an interesting Wikipedia article about a feature of some insects discussed in one article – ballooning.   It describes a way that spiders (and some other small invertebrates)  soar through the air.  Sometimes for very long distances.  That could certainly be the subject of a type three speaking question!  

I also read “Lizard” by Banana Yoshimoto.  This collection of short stories won’t improve your academic reading skills, but I liked it.  These stories from the early 1990s are about young urban sophisticates in Japan trying to figure out how to be young urban sophisticates in Japan.  I don’t think Gen-X in Japan had a road map.

More next month!


This College Board/Florida story continues to attract attention.  I’ve followed this on LinkedIn, but I want to write just one post about it here on the blog.

I can’t help but think that the College Board’s response hints at terribly poor leadership. NYT reporting suggests that the Board capitulated to the conservative leadership of Florida when designing the AP course.  But  in the wake of their failure to win over conservatives, now the Board seeks to frame itself as a defender of progressive values.  Is this what we talk about when we talk about gaslighting?

Increasingly, the College Board looks like an organization that is flailing about.  They just aren’t very good at this sort of thing.  Progressives are upset at what they perceive as capitulation to racists, while conservatives are worked up enough to ban the AP program in a bunch of red states.  Everyone is angry.

Some important background information hasn’t really come up in coverage of this issue.  A short history lesson is in order.

For six decades the College Board and the Educational Testing Service (ETS) enjoyed a very symbiotic relationship.  The Board owned a suite of tests (SAT, PSAT, AP, etc) but ETS did all of the work.  ETS designed the tests, created the questions, scored the tests, mailed the booklets, did the validity research, ensured security, and so on.

A book from the 1980s notes:

“Today, many people at ETS privately refer to  the board as though it were some mildly [offensive term] younger brother, only reluctantly included in big-boy games.  Although ETS executives like to claim that, insofar as the Admissions Testing program is concerned, their company is the humble servant of the Board, in fact all of the power is held by ETS.”

Even in the early 2000s, College Board business accounted for 50% of ETS revenues.

The story of this relationship is worth an essay or two. But I digress.

The relevant point right now is that in addition to the above tasks, ETS also defended the tests.

And ETS did not flail around when faced with criticism.  ETS endured decades of attacks (most importantly from Ralph Nader, I suppose) about the alleged terribleness of its programs and tests.  There was even an Oscar nominated film (Stand and Deliver) which highlighted some of this alleged terribleness.

How did they respond?  As noted, they did not flail about. Instead, ETS responded by publishing research in their own bulletins and scholarly journals, by sponsoring and speaking at obscure conferences and symposiums, and by making public addresses in print, television and radio. They were serious. And this seriousness worked every time. Despite attacks, the SAT and AP survived and even thrived.

Anyway.  It was only within the last few years that the Board canceled most of its contracts with ETS.  The exact date was never made public, but I think they took back the SAT only in 2016.  Most of the AP is done in-house now as well.  The Board, despite its 120-year history, is quite new at all of this.  That presents a problem.

The Duolingo English Test has removed suggested word counts and the word counter from writing questions. Instead of saying “Respond to the question in at least 50 words” the test now says “Write about the topic for 5 minutes.”

That’s great. Anyone who has been reading my blog for some time will know that misleading statements on tests about word counts drive me bonkers.

You can see this change both on the real test and on the free practice test provided on the DET website.

The new PTE Essential Test will be accepted by the Canadian government for immigration. That’s quite a remarkable achievement for a brand new test.

I can’t think of any other tests without any human scoring of speaking and writing that are acceptable for immigration purposes. That said, I’m not an expert when it comes to this sort of thing.

While I’ve never been a fan of scoring that is wholly done by AI, I feel like the Rubicon has been crossed. I don’t think human scoring will be around for much longer.

I don’t know much about this test, but will certainly report on details as I learn them.  Stay tuned to the blog.

I learned that interested teachers may now enroll in the self-directed version of “Teaching Academic English with the TOEFL iBT Test” from ETS. The cost is $300. In the near future, an instructor-led version and an interactive version will be available. Info at the link above.

I also learned that versions of the TPO and Official TOEFL Prep products that allow teachers to monitor student progress will be available shortly.

People who like to know where all the money goes can now enjoy reading an audit of the Educational Testing Service for the year ending September 2022. Download it from the Federal Audit Clearinghouse, or just message me for a copy.  This audit contains information that will be published in the next 990 form release from ETS. Update: it is available via  Propublica now.

Revenues for the year were 1.06 billion dollars, down from 1.07 billion for the year ending September 2021.

The audit reports an operating loss of about 93 million dollars. I think that is the largest loss for all of the years I have records for (back to 2002). Note that ETS no longer develops or administers the STAAR exams for the State of Texas. That very large contract ($388 million dollars) has since been awarded to Pearson and Cambium.

There are a few mildly interesting things deeper in the audit:

Like everyone else in 2021/2022 ETS took a bath on its investments. Its assets are listed at 1.8 billion dollars, down from 2.0 billion.

We can deduce from page 12 that ETS paid 22 million dollars for a controlling (91%) stake in Toronto-based “Kira Talent.” To quote Wikipedia, they “[operate] a cloud-based holistic admissions assessment platform designed for use by academic admissions departments to assess and enroll students.” Sounds good to me.

I think we can deduce from page 21 that the HiSET exam was sold to PSI for 3.6 million dollars.

29% of revenues come from one “client.” This note puzzles me every year. My guess is that the client is the State of California, but I am probably wrong. That seems too high.

The latest Times of India report provides most of the heretofore unknown information about the TOEFL/GRE cheating issue. It indicates that although ETS completed its sting operation in November, the results were reported to local police “only after two months.” It was in that time that the ringleader left for the USA, where he continued to operate the cheating ring. There he remains, apparently.

Careful readers of the last few “Times” articles will now have a pretty clear picture of how the cheating went down. I’m loathe to write a “how to cheat” guide on LinkedIn, but if anyone from ETS (or another testing organization) is still in the dark send me a private message and I’ll lay it out for you. For what it is worth, it tracks with some of the low-tech methods described in the “Rest of World” article about cheating in China. Recall how one cheater was described as simply standing beside the test-taker (and eating skewered meats) as the test was underway.

It may be time to temporarily pause at-home testing for tests that are heavily dependent on multiple choice questions.

Sorry. I don’t have time for breathless sarcasm this morning.

More bad news from Hyderabad, as reports indicate that suspected test cheat Guna Sekhar has departed India for the United States of America.  It is unclear what Mr. Sekhar is doing in America, but he may be cheating on tests.

Thankfully, though, police have nabbed Sekhar’s associate, A Kiran Kumar.  They’ve also collared five members of an unrelated gang of test cheats.

Meanwhile, authorities have pieced together the modus operandi of these cheats.  Says the Times of India:

“Once a client contacted them, Shravan and Aditya collected their details and arranged an at-home test at their friend’s place in Hasthinapuram in the city. Sai Santosh and Kishore hid under the table of the candidate and clicked photos of the questions appearing on the computer screen on their cell phone. They shared these with Aditya and Shravan via WhatsApp. The duo provided the answers which would be shown to the candidate, Cyber Crime ACP KVM Prasad said.”

In case you have trouble following that, here’s how it may have worked:

  1. The cheats advertised their services.
  2. When contacted by a test-taker, the cheats arranged for the test-taker to take the test at a special home.
  3. Two cheats hid under the desk during the test. They took photos of the test questions.
  4. The photos were quickly sent to two other cheats who solved the questions and sent back the answers.
  5. The answers were communicated to the test-taker.

Two questions are left unanswered.  How could the cheats take pictures of the test questions from under the desk?  How could they communicate answers without detection from under the desk?

I don’t want to give anyone bad ideas, so I won’t answer the first question.  But I suspect the answer to the second question involves gentle tugging of the test-taker’s toes. Remember that there are five answer choices for each question on the GRE.

Bad news from Hyderabad, as suspected test cheat Guna Sekhar continues to evade capture by police. Says the Times of India:

“Cops are yet to catch the accused, Guna Sekhar, who was approached by the ETS decoy candidate – a private investigator. Sekhar has been changing his location frequently and cops are hoping to locate him through technical surveillance as he had provided a phone number and also received Rs 25,000 as UPI payment.”

Meanwhile, back at the station, officers haven’t yet figured out how he did it:

“ETS had conducted the sting operation in Hyderabad as a test case after coming to know about fraudulent practices being adopted during home-based GRE test by some candidates in collusion with these fraudsters across the country. Though the complainant alleged that the fraudster managed to click photos of the questions on the computer screen and then shared the same with unknown associate through WhatsApp to get answers, investigators are perplexed how this was accomplished by Sekhar as the candidate has to show the entire room to the proctor who keeps watch during the test to ensure there is no malpractice.”

Anyone who spots Mr. Sekhar is urged to contact local police via a written report which displays unity, progression and coherence.

A few weeks ago, “Rest of World” reported on widespread cheating on the TOEFL and GRE in China. Now the Times of India weighs in with news of cheating in India.

Says the paper:

“The Graduate Record Examinatons (GRE) and Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) conducted online in India is now under a cloud with the testing agency filing a case against a ‘ring of fraudsters’ helping Indian students ace the tests. “


“As per the complaint, Guna Shekhar agreed to help the decoy GRE candidate for Rs 25,000. The modus operandi was simple: Shekhar hid in the same room as the candidate taking the test on a laptop, clicked photos of questions on a mobile and after receiving answers from his associates outside, relayed it to the candidate. According to ETS, there are dozens of such organised cheating rings operating across India through the year.”

The price to take the TOEFL Test increased in many countries on February 1. I track prices in about 60 countries and spotted changes in the following (in parenthesis is the change in USD):

Azerbaijan (+15), Benin (+10), Bolivia (+15), Brazil (+5), Canada (+15), Cuba (+5), Egypt (+40), Ethiopia (+15), Guadalupe (+20), Guatemala (+20), Hong Kong (+15), India (+5), Iran (+20), Israel (+10), Italy (+35), Jordan (+20), Kenya (+5), Mexico (+15), Nigeria (+80), Palestinian Territories (+15), Paraguay (+10), Lima (+10), Saudi Arabia (+20), South Africa (+10), Spain (+20), Sweden (+10), Tajikistan (+5), UAE (+20), USA (+10).

Interestingly, the handful of price decreases I noted a few weeks ago were all reversed, except for the cut in Germany. That accounts for the very large increase in Nigeria.

I think increasing prices decreases equity in education.

I’ll put these up on the blog in a nice chart, as usual, when I return home from my holiday. I’ve spent altogether too much time on this island thinking about tests.