As promised, here are my thoughts about how ETS can help test-takers to have an enjoyable experience throughout their TOEFL journey. Since I’m not qualified to speak about the content of the test, this article will focus entirely on the pre- and post-test experience.

Keep in mind that I’m not trying to pick on my friends at the Educational Testing Service.  I am a great admirer of that organization, its people and its mission.  But ETS is seems to be going through a period of transition (into something more streamlined and responsive) so perhaps my thoughts can be of use now. Needless to say, I’ve hesitated to share such ideas in public in the past.

Note also that these suggestions don’t just come from my experience.  They come from the opinions of the thousands of test-takers I’ve worked with directly, and from the comments of the thousands more who have contacted me via the blog and on social media.

Here goes.

  •  The TOEFL website may be considered old-fashioned. Key information is hard to find.

In the “For Test Takers” section of the website, critical information is spread across approximately 90 static pages, 17 embedded videos, a dozen PDFs and a few ZIP archives.  This is a somewhat dated approach to website design.  As a longtime user of the site, it seems like various UX elements have been grafted onto an original frame dating from 2011.

Consider the path a student must follow to get to a practice test:

Start on ets.org/toefl → scroll and click on “test takers” → click on “about the test” → click on “prepare for the test” in a sidebar → click on “practice tests” in the body of the page → click on “launch the TOEFL iBT Free practice test.”

Compare this to the Duolingo English Test website, where the same goal is accomplished with a single click from the homepage.

Next, compare this: https://www.pearsonpte.com/preparation/on-test-day

To this: https://www.ets.org/toefl/test-takers/ibt/test-day/

The difference is clear.  Pearson has a much more modern design.  Key information is presented on a single page, and superfluous information is omitted.  Meanwhile, ETS uses ten different pages (and a couple of videos) to share a similar amount of information.

Suggestion:  Scrap the website and start again.  The user experience is so dated that yet another patchwork revision would just make it worse.  Eliminate all of the extraneous stuff. Rewrite the stuff people do look at. Modernize the interface of the user account.  Use the new PTE Academic website (https://www.pearsonpte.com/pte-academic) as a model.  Get rid of all PDF and ZIP files.

  •  There is no FAQ or Help Center.

I am puzzled by the fact that ETS doesn’t provide an FAQ page for the TOEFL Test.

Answers to simple questions (like “when will my PDF score report be available for download” or “how do I reinstate canceled scores” or “what does scores not available mean” or “what the heck is an Error 476”) are either not available or are buried deep in the website. Some information is only available in the “TOEFL Bulletin” PDF file that is rarely read.  Students resort to making long distance calls to the customer support department for answers.

Here’s what Pearson offers:  https://www.pearsonpte.com/help-center/general-faqs

And Duolingo: https://testcenter.zendesk.com/hc/en-us

Calls to the support center could be drastically reduced by providing easy access to this kind of information on the website.

Suggestion:  Implement a modern “help center” page using something like Zendesk.  Or just create a static page that answers the most common questions. Talk to people within and outside the company about what questions they are asked again and again.  Remember that young people nowadays feel very uncomfortable talking on the phone. 

  •  The registration process could be overwhelming and stressful

Consider the process students must follow after selecting a test date and location:

  • An acknowledgement that they have read a huge chunk of provided legalese and that they have also read the 41 page TOEFL Bulletin.
  • A long pitch to sign up for the TOEFL Search Service.
  • A request for background information.
  • A request to select score recipients.
  • A baffling request for an Agent ID number and a review of the above.
  • An attempt to upsell them practice materials that scrolls on forever.
  • A shopping cart
  • A checkout screen
  • A payment screen

This can take from 10 to 20 minutes to get through.  Compare that to other tests, where registration is completed in just a few minutes.

Suggestion:  Move as much of this as possible to sometime post-registration.  When possible, move it to the post-test stage.  Run a study tracking how long it takes to sign up for the test.  Adjust as needed.

  •  The free practice material is limited

Note how the free practice test provided by Duolingo is a fairly accurate simulation of their test.  It even implements automated writing and speaking scoring. That was a game changer for Duolingo and likely played a huge part in its rapid ascent. It makes students really familiar with how the test works.  It makes test-takers feel that they are getting something from the testing company instead of being asked to give, give, give.

In contrast, the free practice test on ETS is not an accurate simulation of the real test, nor does it include automated scoring.  Additional content is provided in a zip archive (!!!).

Suggestion:  Provide a free online practice test that is different every time a student takes it.  Just pick and mix sections from those 65 TPOs that are currently sold to Chinese schools.  I can’t do math, but that sounds like it would make possible thousands of unique variations.  Implement the SpeechRater and e-rater in the speaking and writing sections.  This is all possible.

  •  The fee to send scores is perceived as onerous

Some test-takers feel that it doesn’t cost ETS anything to send scores to universities. So being charged $20 per school is problematic to them.

They also know that Pearson allows students to send an infinite number of scores to an infinite number of schools at no cost. Same for the Duolingo English Test. That makes them feel good about the TTX over there.  

Suggestion:  Eliminate this fee.

  •  The pricing of the Home Edition is perplexing

Test-takers have noticed that it costs $185 to take the TOEFL Home Edition from their bedroom in Sri Lanka, and $335 to take it from their bedroom in Switzerland.  They can’t wrap their heads around this fact.

Suggestion:  Fix this.

  • Some people find the TOEFL Search Service is frustrating

For me, the search service only comes up in conversation when a test-taker asks “what the heck is going on with all these unwanted calls?”  No one has ever spoken to me about the search service in a positive light.  Some students have shared negative opinions of the marketing methods used by participating institutions.  Stopping these pitches currently requires a long-distance call to ETS.

Suggestion:  Make the search service “opt-out” by default, and don’t include it in the registration process.  Simplify the opt-out process.  

  •  OTI waiting times are sometimes quite long

Some students have told me that they have waited more than 100 days for their scores to clear the OTI’s review process.  That’s too long, and it creates a negative experience for them.  Reduce these waiting times. Consider bringing back the old position of “test-taker advocate” to help students who are dealing with exceptionally long waiting times.

Update: Just so I don’t forget, here’s my list of additional miscellaneous suggestions, as I remember them:

  • The old score reports were great.  They provided a level (not a score) for each writing task, and each natural pair of speaking tasks.  Students loved them as they provided a little guidance re: what to study.  Bring back something like that, even if it is just part of the ETS account.
  • Fix the GRE/TOEFL account login bug.  That’s still annoying.
  • Provide more descriptive error messages for billing failures.  Those are perplexing.  At least suggest a solution.
  • Fix the EIAS system error bug, or provide a proper error message.
  • Clear up the remaining issues in the Official Guide.
  • Remove the “cancel scores” option from the end of the test.  This is easier to do if score reports are all free.
  • Provide the score PDF at the same time as the scores are reported.
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