The TOEFL Test

The TOEFL Test
by Francis Lide
Elaine Bacon Literacy Program


TOEFL is an acronym for Test of English as a Foreign Language, a standardized test au-thored, updated, and administered by the Educational Testing Service. The test’s official web site is www.toefl.org, which is constantly updated and offers useful information in greater detail. The web site offers a variety of materials, from those available for purchase (actually licensing) to some sample materials that can be downloaded for free.

TOEFL is the recognized test for non-native speakers of English who wish to study “in the United States, Canada, or other countries where English is the language of instruc-tion.”
For nonnative speakers, most American Universities list minimum scores as one of their admission requirements. Many of our Elaine Bacon clients have either already taken the TOEFL test, have spouses who have taken it, or plan to take it themselves.
Long offered on paper, TOEFL is now offered in a computer-based version as well. ETS is phasing out the paper version, and only the computer version is available locally in Marquette, the closest testing location. Most sections of the test require no entering of text, and test-takers go through a tutorial on mouse use and scrolling before the test is given. The computer-based version lasts from 3 ½ to 4 hours, including the tutorials.
The new, computer-based TOEFL is now a four-part test, with sections on listening, structure, reading comprehension, and writing. With the writing section, test-takers are given the choice of composing their essay into the computer or writing it out by hand on an answer sheet. Results composed on the keyboard are graded faster. It seems obvious from the above that our clients who plan to take the test should develop keyboarding skills as well as mouse skills involving scrolling and selecting text in reverse video.
Unlike many other standardized multiple-choice tests, TOEFL does not have a correc-tion factor to correct for random guessing. Test-takers are encouraged to fill in every question, and to guess among possible answers if they can eliminate one or more choices.
The Educational Testing Service also administers a separate “Test of Spoken Eng-lish.” Several years ago, I had a client from India who was required to get a certain score on the TSE as a requirement for licensure as an occupational therapist in Michigan. An-other TOEFL test of spoken English is called SPEAK. a test designed to be administered locally by universities to assess the speaking proficiency of nonnative speakers applying for teaching assistantships. At Michigan Tech, graduate students applying for financial aid as teaching assistants must take this test, which is administered on an appointment basis by the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Faculty Development. Test-takers record their responses on audiotape. This test requires test-takers to give directions on the basis of maps or other graphic stimuli, and to generate spoken English by responding to taped utterances. I am told that using comic strips and cartoons as conversation starters is a good preparation for this test. To judge by one of my students who scored high enough to become a teaching assistant, fluency rather than grammatical accuracy is the crucial fac-tor. Test-takers must be able to keep a flow of talk going..
The highest possible score on the computer version of TOEFL is 300. On the paper version it is 677. The lowest possible scores are 40 and 310 respectively. As of October, 2001, Finlandia University listed a TOEFL score of 500 (paper) or 173 (computer) for “entrance to all undergraduate programs.” According to the Michigan Tech web site, for graduate study Physics requires a paper score of 570, while Mechanical Engineering wants a score greater than 610. It seems strange that scores are expected that are so close to the highest possible. Either a score of 677 (300) describes a proficiency level far short of that of an educated native speaker, or the converted scores become increasingly dense as one goes higher on the scale. (I. e., a ten-point difference above 600 denotes a greater difference in proficiency than the same difference around 400.)
According to one of our catalogs of ESL materials., advanced learners are described as TOEFL 450 + on the scale of the print test.
In my opinion, if a standardized test is valid it cannot be easily gamed. Taking our tutees through test-taking materials can help them achieve the highest possible score given their level of proficiency, but it will only marginally increase that proficiency. If they can predict their score through practicing with test-taking materials, however, they can avoid paying the $110 fee until they are reasonably sure they can achieve an accept-able score.

TOEFL and ESL offerings at Michigan Tech
Upon searching the Michigan Tech web site, I was unable to find a university-wide mini-mal TOEFL score for all international students whose native language is not English. Ap-parently, the university prefers not to announce a minimum score in order to retain flexi-bility in admitting otherwise highly desirable students.
The web page of Tech’s Center for International Education lists ESL courses at the in-termediate, advanced, and “academic support” levels starting spring semester, 2002. The Director of ESL Programs is Fran Wiideman.
The minimum score for the intermediate level ESL courses is 400 for the paper-based test, 97 for the computer-based. To judge by the offerings, it is possible to take up to 18 credit hours of intermediate or advanced ESL at a fee of $210 per credit hour. In order to get a student visa, one needs to enroll in sufficient credit hours to qualify as a full-time student. I therefore conclude that there are some students at Michigan Tech with very low TOEFL scores.
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