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.

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