Today a student was confused about why her TOEFL writing score was so low. She got 30 points in the reading section, 29 points in the listening section, 30 points in the speaking section… but just 19 points in the writing section. I could tell by reading her email that her grammar was far above the “19 point level,” so clearly that wasn’t the cause of the low score.
So what caused their weird (and disappointing) writing score? Here’s how I responded:
It is impossible for me to say what caused your low score, since I cannot read the essays you wrote on test day.
However, I have a few ideas:
- One or both of your body paragraphs in the independent essay could have been flagged as off-topic. This results in a major penalty, even if your grammar is perfect.
- You might have written really short essays. If you follow the recommended word counts stated on the screen during the test it is hard (but not impossible) to score in the high 20s.
- You may have misunderstood some key details from the lecture in the integrated essay. Again, even with perfect grammar you can get a low score if your details are wrong.
- Nowadays ETS seems to be penalizing students who use made-up research or news stories to support their reasons in the independent essay.
These are just some of the reasons why a student with strong English might get a low score in the writing section.
It is important to note that number four is a recent development. Some students have suggested that they’ve been penalized for this, but obviously this is just speculation on their part. That said, a recent update to the Official Guide to the TOEFL (August 2020) supports this theory. Below is that update (page 201).