The TOEFL was successfully revised in 2019. The changes introduced at that time created a better experience for test-takers and score users. That said, there are a few things that could be improved about the overall TOEFL experience. Here are ten things I think ought to be done to improve the TOEFL.
Of course I am neither a linguist or a tech-bro, so I’m not qualified to comment on actual test content, so my suggests are about everything but the test itself.
I’m going to share this list with fellow teachers and students to see what they would change about the test experience. I’ll publish their ideas in a few weeks time.
- Eliminate the $20 fee for sending scores after the test administration. This fee seems a bit excessive. The scores are sent via the Internet, so the markup must be astronomical. How much can it cost ETS to send these? The fee looks particularly bad now that we’ve learned that TOEFL Essentials scores can be sent to an infinite number of schools at no cost… using the same system.
- Fix the Official Guide to the TOEFL. The writing content in the book is pretty bad. The sample integrated writing question in chapter six isn’t accurate. Nor is the sample integrated writing question in sample test one. I appreciate that the big list of sample independent prompts was cleaned up a bit in the sixth edition, but there is still room for improvement there. This bad content has been carried through from the first edition of the book, published 16 years ago. Some of this content is leftover from the TOEFL CBT. On a more positive note, as of the latest editions the two official tests books are now full of perfect tests!
- Get rid of the cancel scores button. This is something that ETS seems really proud of. I often hear them mentioning how this sets them apart from all other tests. But what’s the point? When it is better for students to send no scores than to send low scores? I can’t think of a situation where it will be a good idea to cancel the scores. Meanwhile, the only time I ever hear students talking about this feature is when they accidentally click the button and are panicking about how to reactivate their scores. And cancelling the scores robs them of the opportunity to learn their writing and speaking levels.
- Implement a modern support system. ETS ought to use Zendesk or some similar service to streamline their user support. Too often my advice to students is to just call the support number and wait on hold for a few hours. Not only that, but the answers to common questions are spread out over way too many individual pages on the TOEFL website. Some of them are buried in the Information Bulletin PDF file. I think they even have a fax number still operating. There is room for a more responsive and modern system, like Duolingo uses for their test.
- Provide More Practice Tests. I believe that Cambridge provides 68 practice IELTS tests across its range of official publications. In contrast, ETS provides 14 in its books. And some of those 14 tests are pretty darn old. Why not produce a new collection of samples once per year, as Cambridge does? Students would be happy and the test would become a lot more transparent.
- Active. Noise. Cancelling. Headphones.
- Rephrase the word count recommendations. Once of the most common misunderstandings I hear from students is that there is a word count “limit” in each of the essay tasks. I think this misunderstanding is due to poor phrasing in the writing section directions. Even just including a line like “there is no penalty for exceeding this word count” will clear this problem up right away.
- Make the test prep more fair. ETS has licensed out more than fifty practice tests (the famous TPO sets) to big Chinese companies like KMF and New Oriental. That means that for a very low fee students in China can easily access a ton of accurate practice materials via responsive online platforms. I believe that ETS has also licensed their e-rater and SpeechRater technologies to Chinese firms, giving Chinese students low-cost access to automated scoring for their practice TOEFL responses. In contrast, students in the rest of the world have access to just four practice tests ($45 each) plus a few partial tests. I don’t think this is fair. I think that everyone should have the same access to official practice materials and retired tests.
- Be a bit more transparent about the e-rater and SpeechRater scoring engines. I suspect that I have read more research into these technologies than anyone outside of New Jersey (editor’s note: weird flex, but okay), and they are still a bit of a black box to me. I don’t even know how the human rater and the AI raters are weighted.
- Modernize the voucher system. I want to start a TOEFL scholarship where I give a voucher to some lucky student every few months. Sometimes I just want to buy vouchers for favored students. But to do that I need to scribble my credit card number on a piece of paper and fax it to Princeton. And any vouchers that I get are locked to specific countries. Come on, guys. Figure it out.