Happy April, folks!

First up – new versions of the Official Guide to the TOEFL and the two Official Tests books were published this month, but my copies haven’t arrived so no news about those in this month’s column.  Maybe next month.  Meanwhile, I did read a few things.  They are…

  • Nancy’s Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-year Untold History of Class in America.  This scholarly look at the class divide in America had been on my to-read list for some time.  It was worth the effort it took to find a copy in Korea.  Check this one out to learn about the sometimes deplorable conditions of the poor in North America, beginning with the early days of colonization.  The story of America, I think, is the story of the poor.
  • In the March 2024 issue of “History Today,” I liked Was the Trojan Horse Real ? , a short article about the fake horse of Greek Mythology.  I’m sure you’ve heard of it – Greek soldiers apparently hid inside of it to better facilitate the capture of the city of Troy.  But was it real or is it just part of a made-up story that has endured for centuries? 
  • I also liked The Golden Age of Medieval Nostalgia.  You’ll have to pay for this one so I will keep it brief, but it’s a fun look at life in Europe in the 14th century when “the world turned upside down” due to significant social changes.  Any number of the trends and events described here could be turned into TOEFL reading questions.  Real TOEFL nerds might recognize “the Little Ice Age,” which is referred to early in the article.
  • Measuring the Shape of the Earth is about the exact sort of “why this?” thing that might show up in a TOEFL reading passage.  Is the earth flatter at the poles or around the equator?  Who cares?  Well, geographers, I guess.  As I’ve written here before, physical geography is a common topic in the TOEFL reading section.

By the way, you can get three issues of History today for Five GBP.  That’s like the best deal in magazines out there.  Just make sure to unsubscribe before the auto-renewal kicks in.

  • Finally, I read the June 2023 issue of the Literary Review of Canada.  It included a short article about the work of John Tuzo Wilson, the so-called “Charles Darwin of Geology.”  He contributed greatly to the theory of plate tectonics.  Geology is another common topic on the TOEFL (really, check out the link above).  And I am 100% sure that plate tectonics have come up more than once on the test.

That’s all for now.  Catch you again in May.

Amazon is now shipping copies of the new Official Guide to the TOEFL. As noted a few days ago, the guide no longer contains certain long running inaccuracies, so it’s probably a good time to record the Saga of the Altruism Question.

In late 2005 the first edition of “The Official Guide to the New TOEFL iBT” was published. It contained numerous inaccuracies. One can’t really blame the writers, as they compiled the book before the test launched. It brings to mind those early Star Trek: The Next Generation paperbacks where Troi calls Riker “Bill” and Tasha Yar has long hair.

The most notable errors were two depictions of the integrated writing task. One about group work (contained in the chapter about the writing section), and one about altruism (found in the practice set). I can go into details in the comments if you like, but basically this question has a very specific form and neither of the samples followed it.

Sadly, these two questions also appeared in the second edition, published in 2006.

By this time, third party publishers were releasing their own TOEFL prep books. And here’s the thing: they naturally based their books on the contents of the Official Guide. As a result, every single one of them contained terrible integrated writing questions. I’ll try to create a slideshow below that highlights some examples.  Sorry… it will probably look like trash on mobile.

For the most part, major publishers are adverse to spending money, so these errors remained in the books for ages. Kaplan included terrible integrated writing questions in their famous purple books right to the day they discontinued them. Princeton Review added a new integrated writing question to the 2024 edition of their TOEFL book which is horrific. If you squint at it long enough you’ll notice that it was inspired by the Official Guide.

Had the original book contained proper questions, this problem could have been avoided.

Anyway, the bad questions remained in the third edition, which was published in 2009.

By this time I was teaching TOEFL. At least twice a week someone would send me a practice essay based on the famous altruism question and ask me to grade it. Every time I’d politely explain that even though the question came from the Official Guide, it wasn’t accurate and it would be a waste of their time and money to have me check it. Fifteen years later, I still have to explain that a few times a month.

The questions remained in the fourth edition, published in 2012. By this time ETS had licensed dozens of retired tests to New Oriental, so the proper format was widely known.

The questions remained in the fifth edition, published in 2017.

Teachers were hopeful that the sixth edition, published in 2021, would not contain these faulty questions given that the book required radical revisions to match the changes to the test of 2019. Sadly…  it appeared once more.

But hey.  It’s 2024 now.  Nineteen years have passed.  The bad questions have finally been removed from the book.

The Chosun published a story yesterday about exam tourism.  It reports that Chinese students are flocking to Korea to take the TOEFL and IELTS tests due to a shortage of testing centers in China.  Perhaps half of IELTS test-takers in Korea are Chinese nationals, according to the article.

It is mentioned that there are only 95 IELTS test centers across China, despite a testing volume of about 500,000 per year.  Yikes! I am not sure how many TOEFL test centers there are in China, but I believe that is the test’s number one market.

Apparently, test-takers previously traveled to destinations like Thailand and Vietnam to take the tests, but have switched to Korea now that the ban on Korean culture in China has been lifted.

Regular readers will recall my interview with a TOEFL and IELTS teacher in China who mentioned that due to a shortage of seats in testing centers, students hire agents to sit in front of a computer and nab appointments as soon as they become available.

The problem is likely due to the fact that ETS and BC/IDP don’t really run the (whole) show in China like they do in other countries.  Test registration is instead handled by the NEEA, which is an organ of the Chinese state.  That can, sometimes, create inefficiencies.  Note that at-home testing is somewhat limited in China and that TOEFL test-takers in that country must use a workaround involving an ETS office in Hong Kong.  I believe the at-home IELTS is simply not available, but correct me if I’m wrong, please.

Not mentioned in the article is the fact that both tests are about $70 cheaper in Korea.  Good deal.

My copy of the new TOEFL iBT Premium from Barron’s just arrived.

I was really lucky to have the opportunity to contribute a little bit to this edition (the 18th). My job was mainly to revise the integrated writing questions and make them a bit more accurate. I also fact checked the boring stuff (payment methods, acceptable IDs, whiteboard rules, supported operating systems, score arrival times, etc) that most people don’t read (but really should read).

I think regular users of this book will really appreciate revisions to the practice reading tests, which have been tightened up quite a lot. The design of the questions more closely matches the look of the real test.

Pamela Sharpe has written every edition of this book, starting in 1978. If you want to know something about the history of the TOEFL program, she’s the one to ask.


I just learned that the TOEFL iBT Paper Edition was quietly discontinued in January.

The Paper Edition launched in December of 2021 in select cities across four countries. Test-takers took the Reading, Listening and Writing sections on paper at a test center, and took the speaking section from home on a computer. It included unlimited score reports, which was a nice touch.

There was some demand in India, I think, for a paper option.

This test should not be confused with the TOEFL Paper Based Test, which was a totally different test (based on the 1995 revision of the original TOEFL) that was discontinued in 2017. Nor should it be be confused with the TOEFL Revised Paper Delivered Test, which was just like the TOEFL iBT test but without a speaking section. That was discontinued in 2021.

More layoffs are coming at the Educational Testing Service (ETS). According to a WARN notice published yesterday by the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development, 62 employees will be let go in July of this year. This comes as ETS seeks to rebrand itself as a “global education and talent solutions” organization.  It also comes about one year to the day following the announcement of ETS’s partnership with the Carnegie Institution to “transform the educational pillars they built.”

Regular readers will note that in late 2023, ETS eliminated about six percent of its total workforce, or about 150 individuals.

I believe this is the sixth round of layoffs and departures at ETS since 2020.

I do not know if employees in other states will be impacted by layoffs at this time.

Someone contacted me once again to report that their TOEFL scores were cancelled (no refund) because they increased too much over the span of seven months.  This is what ETS refers to as “an extremely unusual difference between” two test dates.  Or perhaps “Inconsistent performance in your responses between” two test dates.

I wrote a very funny and sarcastic post about this (I even made a silly meme) but deleted it because I love all my friends at ETS very much and I don’t want to be insulting. But listen:

  1. One one hand, the marketing folks at ETS mention potential score increases all over social media to sell test registrations to repeaters.
  2. On the other hand, the product development folks have created all these wonderful new test prep products which are supposed to help people get higher scores. They enable students target the exact microfeatures that are costing them points on test day.
  3. On the third hand, the OTI folks still cancel scores if they change too much.

Do you see why my hair is falling out?  I don’t think the firm should give students the tools to achieve large improvements in their scores, but also penalize students for achieving large improvements.

Leave a comment below if you have gone through something similar.

According to Forbes, the ACT will be spun off into a for-profit company. That for-profit company will be majority owned by Nexus Capital Management, a private equity firm. ACT’s current CEO will serve as CEO of the new company.

The non-profit ACT organization will continue on as a sort of hub for research. Or something. Probably under a different name. It will retain a minority interest in the test.

The ACT was created by researchers at the University of Iowa in 1959, and the non-profit that administers it was created in 1966.  For an amusing account of how petiness from ETS and Henry Chauncey led to the creation of this test, check out Norbert Elliot’s biography of Chauncey, Henry Chauncey: An American Life.

This comes as a surprise, but it isn’t an entirely new idea. Regular readers will already know that in the 1990s ETS spun off a bunch of its tests into a for-profit subsidiary which was later sold to Thomson. And British Council recently sold its IELTS interests in India to the for-profit IDP.  ETS’s move helped save that firm from bankruptcy.  British Council’s move looks to have been a smart one, as the language testing industry is increasingly competitive.

We will probably see more of this in the future.

I posted the following on LinkedIn last week, and IELTS tutors piled in to my page to insist that it will never happen, and that people are proud to take the IELTS instead of some other test.  Look, I could be wrong.  But I must note that no TOEFL tutors came to say that.  TOEFL tutors already know what the Duolingo English Test has done to their business model.  And the smart TOEFL tutors are planning for when the NABP starts accepting the Duolingo Test.

A final observation re: market share.

In the relatively near future, the Duolingo English Test will likely be accepted by governments around the world for visas and study permits.  This change won’t happen in 2024 or 2025, but it will probably happen within the next five years. Certainly within the next decade. When this occurs, demand for the IELTS, PTE-A and TOEFL tests will decline precipitously.

Few people will opt for a $250 test when a $65 test is accepted by the same authorities and is just as respected (or more respected) by the universities they wish to apply to.

As I indicated earlier, I assume that work on the next-gen IELTS and TOEFL tests is already underway.  If it isn’t… now is the time to break the glass and get started on tests that can compete.  Remember that it takes quite a long time to develop a test – the DET was in development for more than six years before it went mainstream in 2020, and the TOEFL iBT was developed over about twelve years before it launched in 2005.

Now in open access from “Language Testing” is an excellent article about test score comparison tables by Ute Knoch and Jason Fan. It explores the concordance tables provided by the makers of the TOEFL, IELTS, PTE-A and C1 tests.

This is a wonderful area to explore in 2024 – most readers are probably aware that the topic of concordance tables has come up quite a lot in recent years as the English test market has become more competitive.

The article suggests that when it comes to creating score comparison tables, best practice principles are not always fulfilled. It notes:

“Our findings indicate that the information provided on the test provider websites about concordance tables is often vague or insufficient. Test users are not always provided with the research underpinning these concordance tables. When such research is provided, it tends not to fulfill the good practice principles and is usually presented in formats not easily accessible to non-specialist test users.”

And also:

“…the sample sizes are generally too small to provide robust score comparisons. Basic information is often not provided, such as concordance results for subsection scores (which are crucial for the requirements for Australian migration and other policy-makers), the number of observations at different score levels, and their standard errors. Test users are not usually informed about the potential limitations of using published concordance tables.”

But why? Well…

“At the moment, there is little motivation to invest in more robust concordance studies due to the absence of regulatory oversight and minimal demand for high-quality work from test users. It is also important to note that concordance tables are one site in which competition between test providers manifests, who may have a commercial interest in lowering their test scores to make it easier for applicants to achieve certain test score requirements.”

There is much more in the article. Do check it out.

Some anecdotal evidence of changes in language testing for university admissions.

Twice a year, first year international students (undergraduates) at Columbia University reach out to me for tutoring while they are preparing for Columbia’s placement test (the ALP Essay Test).  Basically, students whose first language is English take a test to determine if they’ll have to take language classes in addition to their normal courseload.  I help them get ready for that test.  I’ve worked with about twenty such students since 2022.

Of course, I take the opportunity to quiz them about the test scores they submitted when they applied to Columbia in the first place.

Here’s the thing. All but one of my students submitted Duolingo English Test scores when they applied to Columbia.  One student submitted IELTS scores.  None submitted TOEFL or PTE-A scores.

Pre-pandemic, I think, most of them would have submitted TOEFL scores.  A few would have submitted IELTS scores.  Things have changed a lot since then.  They may continue to change.

(PS:  None of them submitted SAT scores)