Update: It is working again!  Everyone can register.

I think the TOEFL registration system has stopped working again.

When I try to register for the TOEFL iBT Home Edition Test I get this error:

“No available slots in this time range” 

others have reported this error:

“The test center and/or test date/time are no longer available” 

I think it is still possible to register to take the test at a test center.

People on social media are reporting the same thing right now for the past 24 hours.  I think that the same error has been reported in the past.  It seems to get fixed eventually.  

Yesterday I wrote about ways to improve the pre- and post-test experience for test-takers.  I suppose “improve the backend” could be added to that list.  It seems to be that registration for the TOEFL is quite often offline for maintenance, or offline because of a mysterious error.  

Update: People on social media have indicated that it is not possible to register for a test at a test center at this time.

Update 2: Users attempting to register for the GRE get the same error.

 

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.

ETS has confirmed that students in Russia and Belarus can now register to take the TOEFL Home Edition and the at home GRE from within Russia and Belarus.  However, they may not take those tests at a test center. 

Here is the press release announcing this change:

Beginning August 4, ETS is updating its March 2022 policy and will now allow test takers in Russia and Belarus to register for the TOEFL iBT Home Edition, TOEFL Essentials and at home GRE tests barring any financial restrictions they may encounter.

Due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, students in Russia and Belarus remain unable to take these tests at a test center within these countries. Students who prefer to test in person are welcome to take an exam in other countries or regions barring any travel and financial restrictions they may encounter.

We remain firmly committed to supporting all learners on their education journeys and hope peace prevails as soon as possible.

Testing in Russia and Belarus was suspended in March by ETS with an announcement that the testing organization stood “in unity with the people of Ukraine with hope that peace prevails.”

According to reports from Mediazona, test-takers in Russia and Belarus will be permitted to take the TOEFL Home Edition starting August 4.   Testing in those countries was shut down in March of this year when ETS ceased operations following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  For a few hours this month, that ban actually extended to Russian citizens around the world.  

Interestingly, the report indicates that students will only be able to take the TOEFL Home Edition… and will not be able to take it at a test center.

Mediazona cites an ETS rep as the source of this news.  I guess the GRE will return in a similar fashion, since it is also an ETS test.

Update: ETS has now issued a press release confirming the above information.  Students in Russia and Belarus can take the TOEFL Home Edition and the at-home GRE.

It is worth keeping an eye on the IELTS test, which was shut down in Russia around the same time.  Same for Pearson’s PTE.

 

As promised, here is my updated list of nine commandments for better test-taker experience (TTX) before and after a standardized English test. 

I suppose I will post my list of suggestions specifically for the TOEFL program in the next day or two.  I’ve so far neglected to do that because I don’t wish to offend anyone at ETS.  I admire that organization and its mission.  That said, they seem to be in a period of renewal and transition (to something better).  Perhaps this is actually a good time to make suggestions.

These commandments, meanwhile, apply to every test providing organization.

1. Make all critical  information accessible within one or two clicks from the test’s home page.  Not five or six clicks. 

2. Provide a beautiful FAQ page that quickly answers questions that are asked every day.  Don’t bury important information in a bunch of PDFs or nested sidebar menus. This will not only improve test-taker experience, but will significantly reduce calls to your customer support lines.

3. If the test is taken at home, the price should be the same in every country (other than local sales taxes).  Don’t charge $185 to take the test from my bedroom in country X, and $340 to take it from my bedroom in country Y.

4. Make it possible for students to create an account, register and pay for their test in less than five minutes.

5. Provide a free practice test that is different every time the student takes it.   If your test uses automated scoring, implement that in your free practice test.

6. Eliminate most extra fees. If scores are sent electronically, don’t charge $15 per recipient. That looks exploitative. There should be one single transaction – registration for the test.  Give everything else away for free.

7. If you are selling access to the scores and personal data of test takers, make that opt-out by default. And if a student needs to opt-out at a later time, enable them to do so via the website. Don’t require a long-distance telephone call to your customer support desk.

8. Don’t play favorites when it comes to your target markets, or countries with the most growth potential. People are savvy, and they can see what you’re doing. It frustrates them. Make sure everyone has the same access to preparation materials, discounts, fee waivers and special promotions.

9. If you are running a non-profit organization, state explicitly how test-takers’ fees are used.

I saw new ETS president Amit Sevak on The PIE Chat a few days ago.  He spoke about many interesting topics, but a few things he mentioned about the TOEFL program are worth repeating here.  They are:

  • He said that “almost a million students every year take TOEFL”.  That’s the first official reference to the number of test takers I have seen in a long time. 
  • He said that ETS would like to expand the use of TOEFL for migration purposes.  
  • He noted that ETS would like to expand the TOEIC program.  That’s interesting, and I would love to hear some details about how ETS figures they can go about this.

At the end, he noted (emphasis mine):

“I’m increasingly focusing on the student… we are standing up not only for the test, but we’re standing up for the test taker. And starting to get into the mind of what are test takers interested in, what kind of experience do they want, what is the goal that they have of taking that assessment.  So really being more customer centric or more student centric or more learner centric is a key component of it.”

That’s really key for the future of the TOEFL (and other ETS products).  Some outside of the organization have suggested that in recent years ETS has backslid in this regard.  I’ll dust off my blog post about test taker experience and post an updated version in the next day or two. 

ETS has just published its “Test and Score Data Summary” for 2021.  This document contains a ton of valuable information, including average scores (and section scores) overall and in specific countries.

The average TOEFL score is now 88 points.  That’s an increase of one point since last year.

Here’s a history of the average score since the test began:

  • 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
  • 2021: 88

As you can see, this year’s jump is not as wild as in 2020, but a one point increase is still significant.

Here’s how the section scores changed (compared to last year):

  • The average TOEFL reading score is now 22.4 (+0.2)
  • The average TOEFL listening score is now 22.6 (+.03)
  • The average TOEFL speaking score is now 21.1 (-0.1)
  • The average TOEFL writing score is now 21.6 (+0.1)

I pay special attention to trends in a few key markets.  I noticed that in all of the countries I track, the average score is unchanged.

  • The average score in China is 87 
  • The average score in Korea is 86 
  • The average score in Japan is 73 
  • The average score in Brazil is 90 
  • The average score in India 96 
  • The average score in the USA is 93

At first glance, it seems like the overall score increase is due to smaller markets “catching up” to the increases in the rest of the world that were observed in last year’s numbers.

 

The cost of taking the TOEFL in some countries increased this month.  Usually the price increases on August 1, but I think it was hiked on July 1 this season.  Note that some prices were increased on February 1 of this year as well.

A few things stand out:

  • I spotted increases in: Cuba, Ghana, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Iraq, Israel, Mexico, Morocco, Pakistan, Paraguay, Peru, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, United States.
  • Note that I only track 62 countries, so I probably missed some changes.  If you want your country added to the tracker (for next time) just leave a comment.
  • Switzerland remains the most expensive country to take the test at $345.  Sri Lanka seems to be the cheapest, at $185.
  • The price has increased in Morocco four times since February of last year.  Same for South Africa.
  • I don’t track China since ETS doesn’t handle the registration, but my sources there indicate that the price remains 2100 RMB, or about $314 USD.
  • I suppose I will check again on August 1 just in case there are further adjustments.

Here’s the master list.  I’ve removed the first two columns, but I have the data if you need it.  All prices are in USD.

Country

February 1, 2021

August 1, 2021

February 1, 2022

July 1, 2022

Afghanistan 

$220

$230 

$230

$230

Argentina

$205

$205

$215

$215

Australia

$300

$273 + tax

$273+tax

$273+tax

Azerbaijan

$195

$205 

$205

$205

Bangladesh

$200

$205 

$205

$205

Benin

$185

$185

$190

$190

Bolivia

?

$185

$190

$190

Brazil

$215

$215

$215

$215

Canada

$245

$225 + tax

$225 + tax

$225 + tax

Colombia

$240

$202 + tax

$202 + tax

$202 + tax

Congo, DR

$195

$195

$195

$195

Cuba

?

$205

$215

$225

Egypt

$185

$195 

$205

$205

Ethiopia

$200

$210 

$220

$220

France

$265

$265

$265

$265

French Polynesia

?

?

?

?

Georgia

$185

$190 

$195

$195

Germany

$260

$265 

$265

$265

Ghana

$220

$220

$225

$235

Guadalupe

$195

$195

$200

$200

Guatamala

?

$195

$195

$205

Hong Kong

$245

$255 

$265

$275

Indonesia

$205

$205

$205

$205

Iceland

$220

$220

$230

$230

India

$185

$190 

$190

$190

Iran

$245

$245

$245

$245

Iraq

$215

$225 

$225

$235

Israel

$280

$280

$290

$300

Italy

$270

$280 

$280

$280

Japan

$245

$245

$245

$245

Jordan

$200

$205 

$210

$210

Kenya

$220

$225 

$225

$225

Korea

$210

$220 

$220

$220

Kosovo

?

$200

$200

$200

Mexico

$190

$200 

$200

$210

Mongolia

$210

$215 

$215

$215

Morocco

$220

$230 

$240

$250

Netherlands

$265

$270 

$270

$270

New Zealand

$275

$275

$275

$275

Nigeria

$195

$182 + tax

$182 + tax

$182 + tax

Norway

$315

$325 

$325

$325

Pakistan

$195

$200 

$200

$205

Palestinian Territories

$245

$245

$255

$255

Paraguay

?

$225

$230

$240

Peru

$220

$220

$220

$230

Philippines

$215

$225 

$225

$225

Russia

$260

$270 

$270

--

Saudi Arabia

?

?

$290

$300

South Africa

$235

$240 

$245

$250

Spain

$250

$255 

$255

$255

Sri Lanka

?

?

$185

$185

Sweden

$280

$290 

$290

$300

Switzerland

$320

$335 

$335

$345

Tajikistan

$185

$185

$190

$190

Thailand

$215

$215

$215

$215

Turkey

$185

$157 + tax

$157 + tax

$157 + tax

Uganda

$225

$235 

$235

$245

United Arab Emirates

$255

$270 

$270

$280

United Kingdom

$220

$235 

$235

$235

United States

$225

$235 + tax?

$235 + tax

$245 + tax

Vietnam

$200

$200

$200

$200

West Bank

$215

$215

$215

$215

Today I want to pass along a few details from the Virtual Seminar for English Language Teachers hosted by ETS last night.

One of the presenters provided new details about how the speaking questions are scored. He prefaced these details by sharing a sample type 3 speaking question.  Here is the reading part:

And here is a transcript of the listening part:

 

A standard question, right?

Then we were shown the “answer sheet” that is given to raters so they know how to assess topic development.  This is new information.  Here it is:

That’s interesting, right?  My assessment of this is that for an answer to receive a full score for topic development it must explicitly or implicitly reference the term and its definition.  It must also broadly summarize the example.  And then it must include just two of the four main details given in the example.  The last part is new to me.  Generally, I push students to include all of the details.  Perhaps I should reassess my teaching methods.

There you go, teachers.  Some new information about the TOEFL… in 2022.

A few questions remain:

  • Is this always the case?  Will there always be four main details in the example?  Will we always need to include just two of them?  Probably not.  Surely there are cases where more than two details are required.
  • How does this work in lectures which have two totally unique examples?  Often the reading is about a biological feature in animals, while the lecture describes two different animals that have this feature.  Is it okay to ignore one of them?  Probably not.
  • Can any of this learning be applied to TOEFL Speaking question four?  Probably not.
  • Does order matter?  Probably not.

 

 

 

Hey, it’s my sixth favorite day of the year – the day of the new TOEFL bulletin!  You can download it over here. It will take effect next month.  The new layout makes it difficult to identify changes, but I spotted a few things of note:

  • The “returned payment” fee has increased from $20 to $30.  I honestly don’t know what this fee actually refers to.
  • The refund policy for test takers in Korea has become a bit worse.  Those test takers now must cancel four days before the test to get a 50% refund.  It used to be three.
  • New: Electronic ID may not be used.
  • New: ID must contain your date of birth (and it must match the date of birth used when registering for the test)
  • As I mentioned a few days ago on this blog, sales taxes are now collected for registrations in Vietnam and Singapore (among other countries)

Also, this bulletin excises what seems to be the final official reference to “the ETS.”  Long live “ETS.” 

Students often ask if they can take notes or write templates on their scratch paper during the ten minute break in the middle of the TOEFL.  The answer is no.  You are not allowed to write anything during the break.

Here’s what the TOEFL Bulletin for 2021-22 says (on page 23):

The scratch paper is provided for appropriate note taking during the timed sections of the test. Scratch paper is not to be used before the test, during the untimed sections of the test, or during breaks.

On the next page, it says:

You cannot use the scratch paper provided or notes of any kind to prepare your essay at the beginning of the test or during breaks.

And then on page 25 it says that your test will be stopped for:

Using the scratch paper provided or notes of any kind to prepare your essay during breaks.

Later on the same page it says that your test will be stopped for:

Attempting to remove scratch paper or a piece of scratch paper from the testing room or using scratch paper before the test, during the untimed sections, or during breaks.

Get the point?

I should also mention that you aren’t allowed to access your phone during the break.  Here’s what the bulletin says (on page 24):

You cannot access your phone or other devices during the test session or during breaks to check messages, make a call, check the time or for any other reason.