Someone recently posted a complaint on Reddit.

You can click the image below to read it (and the boilerplate message from ETS) but basically their TOEFL scores were canceled because unauthorized software was detected during the test administration. The test taker is frustrated because the security specialist (proctor) failed to detect or shut down the software during the pre-test check. Their scores were canceled, and no refund was offered.  I’ve written about this many times here on the blog.

In my estimation, this is one of the biggest pain points test takers have experienced since the advent of at-home English testing in 2020. It has also been challenging for test makers because, as you know, bad stories spread very quickly over social media.

A variant of this pain point that was prevalent for the first three years of the at-home TOEFL was what some people dubbed the “insta-cancellation.” In such cases the proctor carried out all of the required pre-test checks. This included remotely accessing the test-taker’s system and manually shutting down unauthorized software. The proctor would then begin the test… which would immediately be terminated due to the detection of unauthorized software. No refund.

Fortunately, the insta-cancellation was entirely eliminated due to changes to the proctoring process introduced at the end of July 2023.

But by that time, reports of this (and similar) problems had already spread quite widely on social media. One could find them quite easily on the typical social media sites… but also on less traditional places like Trustpilot. Heck, once overseas test-takers learned about the BBB, they piled in there to make complaints as well. A bunch of people even left negative reviews on the Google Maps listing for the ETS headquarters in New Jersey. I believe that all of this had a very deleterious impact on the reputation of the at-home TOEFL.

It’s no great surprise that Duolingo’s marketing materials specifically mention their much more generous approach to unauthorized software. I would say that is evidence of some big brains in Pittsburgh, but even I could have figured it out. And, folks, I went to a test-optional university.

I don’t mention this to rag on ETS or to advocate for test takers. I mention it because there are still a lot of people scratching their heads and wondering why the market shifted so quickly, and why both students and institutions were so quick to embrace alternative English tests.  This is one of the reasons.

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