TOEFL Moves to Computerized Format

University Testing

The Educational Testing Service (ETS) has now added the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) to the growing list of its exams that will no longer be offered in paper-and-pencil format to most test takers. As of this summer, students in the U.S., Canada and all but 14 countries around the world will be required to travel further, on average, and pay 33 percent more to take the new, computerized version of the test. More than 650,000 students in 180 countries took the paper and pencil version of the test at more than 1,000 sites last year. This year, the computerized version will be given to more than half of test takers worldwide.


TOEFL is used by colleges and universities in the United States, as well as by some employers, to gauge English-language proficiency. The test is an important gateway to higher education not only for thousands of foreign students but also for immigrants already living in the United States.


Sylvan Learning Systems, the main commercial provider of computer-based tests for ETS, will be responsible for the delivery of the new version of the test worldwide, either directly or through local subcontractors. ETS owns a share of Sylvan, which also has the exclusive contract to administer the computerized GMAT and GRE (see Examiner, Winter 1998). Through its recent acquisition of ASPECT, a leading provider of English as a Second Language (ESL) programs for college-aged students, Sylvan is positioning itself to offer not only TOEFL but also coaching services for the test.


The swift introduction of the new computerized TOEFL, combined with proposed sharp fee increases from $75 to $125 overseas (and $100 in the U.S.) raised protests about the cost and availability of the test. In response to these concerns, ETS rescinded half the over-seas fee increase, charging $100 everywhere. The test-maker is also adding as many as 100 mobile-testing centers to the 120 permanent and 202 moveable overseas centers planned.


In some nations, however, including Congo, Paraguay, Turkmenistan and Niger, the test will be available at just one site, a mobile testing center that will be in the country for just 1-2 months. This creates particular difficulties for students from outlying areas who must contend with limited transportation and may have to spend several days at a hotel in order to take the test.


Educators have also expressed concerns about the limited computer experience of many TOEFL test takers, particularly in developing nations. In most African nations, for example, few high school students have access to computers. ETS is now making available a CD-ROM that includes a tutorial on the computerized TOEFL, but the disk itself will not help those students who lack access to computers or to computers equipped with CD-ROM drives. Higher-income students with computers will gain additional advantages from this coaching. Moreover, the technical problems that have plagued the computerized versions of the GMAT and GRE will likely be even more difficult to resolve when the testing centers, many of them mobile, span the globe.