“Rest of World” took a deep dive into the world of cheating on online standardized tests, including the PTE, IELTS, TOEFL, GRE and Duolingo English Test.

They note:

“A university student in the central Chinese province of Henan told Rest of World in November that she recently hired a company to help her with the Toefl test by sending answers to her phone during an at-home exam. The company initially asked for 18,000 yuan ($2,548), but she bargained it down to 15,000 ($2,124). The student said she felt bad for cheating, but she was eager to obtain a high score before the application deadlines for the fall 2023 master’s programs in the U.S. “I think everyone struggles [with ethics],” she said. “It’s not a good thing after all.” 

Helping others cheat on state exams is a criminal offense in China. But test-prep professionals say Chinese authorities have little interest in how they exploit the security lapses of international tests. On social platforms including WeChat, Xiaohongshu, and Douban, test-prep agencies openly advertise cheating services for other online-proctored exams such as GMAT, the PTE Academic exam, IELTS Indicator, and the Duolingo English Test. One company contacted by Rest of World offered cheating services for the LSAT, a rigorous exam required by most law schools in the U.S., charging 40,000 yuan ($5,662) to obtain a score of 160 out of 180, and 60,000 yuan ($8,494) to hit 170, good enough for a Harvard Law School applicant.”

Representatives from testing organizations counter that they are working hard to reduce cheating and provide secure platforms. 

This is a subject I have never felt comfortable writing about on the blog, but it matches what I’ve heard over the past couple of years.  Cheating is not limited just to China, of course.

Kathy Spratt recently sent me an M.A. thesis by Zhi (Stone) Chen of Iowa State University. The thesis investigates some of the TOEFL preparation behaviors of repeater test-takers in China, and is the best investigation of the TOEFL I’ve seen in recent years.  Everyone should check it out. Reading about test-takers in China is of particular importance as Chinese test-takers are kicking ass nowadays.  Their scores are going up and up.  In 2020, the mean score in China increased by six points. 

I want to highlight and comment on a few of Chen’s findings.

General Findings

  • The literature review suggests that TOEFL coaching and preparation schools are ineffective. That comes as no surprise to me.
  • Nowadays, online communities are more popular.  Again, this is no great surprise.  Self-directed learning is probably the best way to tackle the TOEFL.
  • The most popular preparation method?  Using the TPOs.  It is unfortunate that the TPOs are only widely available within China.  I know that some are available for people outside China,  but the difference in availability is notable: 69 sets for free in China vs five sets that cost $40 each in the rest of the world.  I hope ETS acknowledges this disparity some day. The thesis includes quotes from test-takers who raved about the usefulness of the TPOs.  At the end of the day, I suspect that easy access to TPOs is the “secret” to score increases in China.  But that’s my conclusion, not the author’s.

New Preparation Techniques 

Chen mentions a few preparation techniques not discussed in existing literature:

  • The article describes how many students use “speed listening” to prepare for the speaking section. Basically, they grab the audio from a sample lecture (TPOs, I guess) and listen to it at normal speed.  Then the listen at 1.2 speed.  Then they listen at 1.4 speed.  The goal is to be able to understand every word at 1.4 speed, so that on test day the lectures sound like they are in “slow motion.”  I suppose they repeat this process with dozens of lectures.  One student mentioned doing this with the “60 Second Science” podcast from Scientific American.
  • The article also describes how a “new” preparation method is getting feedback regarding their practice essays.
  • Dictation and shadow-speaking are also mentioned.

I do encourage you to check out the thesis for yourself to explore which preparation methods were deemed most effective overall, and in each section of the test.


I blogged last month about how TOEFL scores in China skyrocketed in 2020.  Part of that was due to the test changes in 2019, but of course that isn’t the whole explanation, as scores in the rest of the world didn’t increase quite as much.

To figure this out, I asked one of my contacts in China for comment.  This teacher owns a small TOEFL tutoring school in a major city.  He said:

That is a significant raise in average scores. Compared to when I started teaching TOEFL in 2013, parents are definitely expecting more of their kids and tutors nowadays. I remember at the time, the ‘target’ most students would aim for was +100. Now, everyone wants to reach +105, with some parents & counselors/advisors insisting on +108 for their children. I think this stems from increased competition, as the number of Chinese international students applying to the USA has increased quite a bit, so students need to strive harder to stand out. Even the average age of our students is much younger than before. We get quite a few middle school students now whose parents are younger, more international, and globally savvy as well.
Of course, how students are actually able to achieve better results, I have a hard time placing my finger on. In general, I think the reason might be that the international education industry is more developed than before. There are more international schools; STEAM programs and Project Based Learning is being heavily embraced by the industry; and test prep is now mostly comprised of small, independent centers rather than the monopoly New Oriental had on the market. From what I’ve heard, it was quite easy to get by at New Oriental before, as long as you could entertain large classes and could play politics in the company. Now, with all the smaller centers, more responsibility is placed on teachers as there is more direct contact with students and families. This is just a guess based off the changes I’ve seen recently though.

So there ya go.  An insider’s take on TOEFL prep in China.

TOEFL Score data for 2020 is available!  As regular readers of the blog will know, this is my favorite day of the year!  You can download your copy from ETS.

Scores are way up this year.  I don’t know why.

The overall mean (average) score is now 87.  That is an increase of four points, which is quite a big jump.  Here’s the history of the average TOEFL score:

  • 2006: 79
  • 2007: 78
  • 2008: 79
  • 2009: 79
  • 2010: 80
  • 2011 (not available)
  • 2012 (not available)
  • 2013: 81
  • 2014: 80
  • 2015: 81
  • 2016: 82
  • 2017: 82
  • 2018: 83 
  • 2019: 83
  • 2020: 87

As you can see, it took thirteen years for the average score to increase from 79 to 83.  That jump was replicated in 2020 alone.

Obviously this year there are also large jumps in the section scores:

  • The mean reading score is now 22.2 (+1.0)
  • The mean listening score is now 22.3 (+1.4)
  • The mean speaking score is now 21.2 (+.6)
  • The mean writing score is now 21.5 (+1.0)

Last year, the section score changes were much smaller. They were (respectively): +.4, +.3, +.1, -.2.

The jumps in 2020 alone are comparable to the jumps I recorded in the nine years from 2010 to 2019.

As you guys know, I like to study geographic trends, particularly those in China, Korea and Japan.  Here’s what I spotted:

  • The mean score in Korea is now 86 (+3)
  • The mean score in China is now 87 (+6) !!!
  • The mean score in Japan is now 73 (+1)
  • The mean score in Taiwan is now 85 (+2)

I must point out that in the thirteen years between 2006 and 2019 the average score in China increased by five points.  In 2020 alone the increase was six points.

Scores in other key markets have increased as well:

  • The mean score in Brazil is now 90 (+3)
  • The mean score in India is now 96 (+1)
  • The mean score in the United States is now 93 (+2)

The top performing country this year is Austria, with an average score of 102 (+2)

It appears that China is driving much of the overall increase.  In case you are curious, the section increases there are: Reading + 2, Listening + 2,  Speaking no change, Writing +2.

I’m going to do some more digging and some more calling in the weeks ahead.  I want to know more about these dramatic changes.