Given the recent goings-on at IDP Education (layoffs and downsizing), I think it’s worth repeating my standard pitch for disruption in the English testing industry.  I posted this on LinkedIn a few days ago, but I realize that some very smart people don’t use that platform.

I’ll preface this by pointing out that while on stage at the Duolingo English Test Convention a few days ago I noted that I don’t think that the DET is more valid than other tests, or that it has better items.  Test items are not what make me a fan.

With that out of the way, here’s the pitch.

At the aforementioned DETcon, Duolingo co-founder Luis von Ahn told the story of his personal experience with language testing and how it informed (and continues to inform) the development of the DET.  He has told this story many times now.  In brief, it goes like this:  while applying for schools in the United States he needed a TOEFL score.  Sadly, there were no available spots at test centers in Guatemala, where he lived, and in order to meet his deadlines he was forced to travel outside of the country to take the test.  The cost was significant.

That was in the 1990s. I wasn’t doing test prep at that time.  But when I started teaching around 2010, it was still clear to many people that the test center model was less than perfect. People were still traveling great distances to take tests.  On top of paying for test fees, bus tickets and hotels, test takers experienced lost wages due to  travel times.  A $150 test could easily become a $1500 test.

But here’s the thing: in 2024, the test center situation is even worse.

I speak to test center operators now and then.  They tell me how their relationships with legacy testing firms have changed over the past decade.  Once upon a time, they tell me, they were paid a flat rate for a scheduled test administration, no matter how many people had registered for the given date.  But now, they complain, they are paid based on the number of registrants.

In effect, fewer registrations = less profit.

Can you see where this is going? The test center operators tell me that if there aren’t enough test takers to make an administration on a particular date worthwhile, they find a way to cancel it. When this happens, test takers are left in the lurch (deadlines be damned).  I hear from test takers who have experienced this.  Sure, they get a new test date at no cost, but they can kiss goodbye to the money they’ve spent on hotels and bus tickets.

See what I mean?  A bad thing has been transformed into something even worse.

But at-home testing is here to save the day, right?

Well, when the legacy players got into the at-home business back in 2020, their product (in my opinion) was pretty clunky.  Tests were often terminated for nebulous reasons.  Instructions were badly communicated. I still remember how one at-home test told every test taker to put on their headset just before the listening section started… but terminated the test whenever someone actually followed those instructions because wearing a headset was against the rules of the at-home test.  I’m not kidding. Apparently it took years for them to figure out a way to remove those instructions from the at-home version.

And in 2024?

Again, the product appears to be even worse. Back in ‘20 when something went wrong a person taking a legacy test could usually get a free re-test. But now? If something goes wrong test takers are often told to go pound sand. Back in ‘20 when a jagged score profile was used to justify a score cancellation the test taker could appeal the decision or simply take the test again for free.  But now?  The appeals process has been eliminated and they can take it again only at their own expense. I hear these things every week from heartbroken test takers. I end up with a broken heart, too.

And don’t even get me started on the legacy testing company that recently made big cash payments to at-home test takers after reaching a settlement with the US Attorney’s Office to resolve accusations that they had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (which was not the first time that accusation had been leveled at that firm, by the way).

But maybe the move to at-home testing has eliminated barriers to education by reducing fees for people in countries where running test centers is expensive due to logistics and security-related issues?

Not really.

Today a kid taking the TOEFL from his bedroom in Japan will pay $199.  A kid in neighboring South Korea will pay $220.  Meanwhile, a kid taking the test from his bedroom in Afghanistan, who thinks an education might be a path to a better life, will pay $230.

A kid in the Palestinian Territories will pay $270.

All for the same at-home test, delivered in the same way, proctored by the same proctors, and graded by the same raters.

I’ve never really gotten an explanation for this.  My guess is that there are iron-clad deals in place with test center owners that prevent equitable pricing for the at-home TOEFL. But it could be something else.

In any case, things are not any better than they were when I started teaching in 2010. And that, in effect, is why I support disruption in English language testing.

I’ll end by reminding my friends at legacy testing companies that this is why many influential people are excited by the idea of disruption, this is why institutions are accepting new tests, and this is why test-takers are choosing those tests.

This is why, in part, there are so many layoffs. This is why you need to start doing better.

A few points are worth mentioning that I couldn’t fit into the above:

  1. Fees for some tests have increased way beyond the rate of inflation in certain markets, despite the fact that those tests include far fewer items than in the past.
  2. I talked to one test center owner in Germany who said he sometimes runs tests at a loss because he feels guilty about canceling dates.
  3. Charging $25 to send a score to an institution is no longer justifiable.
  4. If key parts of your test have been outsourced to private equity your test is likely doomed.
  5. It costs $450 to take the TOEFL from your bedroom in Switzerland.
  6. The next Luis von Ahn will pay $230 to take the TOEFL from his bedroom in Guatemala.  Or he might just opt for the DET.
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