Europeans Assail Rollout of New Online Format for TOEFL test

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Dec 16 14:47:28 UTC 2005

Friday, December 16, 2005

Europeans Assail Rollout of New Online Format for Test of English as
Foreign Language



European educators and students are complaining that recent moves toward
administering the Test of English as a Foreign Language only online are
hurting thousands of foreign students who want to take the important
examination -- a gateway to study in the United States -- but cannot
because of technical glitches and reduced opportunities to take the test.
Universities in the United States and elsewhere use the test, known as the
Toefl, to evaluate the English-language proficiency of foreign applicants.

Until recently the test was administered primarily on paper. But in
October the Educational Testing Service, the nonprofit organization that
owns and administers the test, began phasing out the paper test, offering
an Internet-based version instead in Canada, France, Germany, and Italy.
The Internet-based test is also available in the United States.
Administering the test in France and Germany has been especially
problematic, said Lonnie R. Johnson, executive director of the
Austrian-American Educational Commission, which manages the Fulbright
Program in Austria. He called the new test "a much-heralded event that
looks good on paper but is not working in practice."

Mr. Johnson has been designated by the directors of the 25 Fulbright
commissions in Europe to serve as their spokesman on issues related to the
Educational Testing Service and its administration of the Toefl. "Aside
from technological problems and glitches, ETS did not have enough sites up
and running to handle the demand," said Mr. Johnson. "There aren't enough
slots for the test-takers, and if they can't take the tests they need,
then they can't apply to the programs they want to. This is impacting
dramatically on the ability of students to apply to American institutions
of higher education."

The decision to introduce the new version of the test in the fall, the
most busy test-taking time of the year, exacerbated the problems, said
Arnaud Roujou de Boube, executive director of the Franco-American
Commission for Educational Exchange. "This was the worst possible period
to introduce it," he said. David Hunt, the ETS executive responsible for
overseeing the transition to the new Toefl, conceded that, "as with any
new test, we have experienced some capacity shortfalls in a limited number
of cities, primarily in France and Germany."

The company is responding to complaints, he said, noting that the test
will soon be offered at many more sites in France, Germany, and Italy. In
addition, Mr. Hunt said, ETS reinstated the paper-based test last weekend
in four French cities. Karla Taudin, head of the educational-advising
center at the Fulbright commission in France, said those responses were
inadequate. As of this week, she said, the ETS Web site tells students
attempting to register for the exam that "there are no test sites in Paris
until the end of March."

Ms. Taudin said she was advising some students to take an equivalent
British exam that is accepted by some American universities. "What ETS has
done is arrogant," she said. "They have an almost complete monopoly on the
market and didn't take into account the problems this was going to cause
for the students." ETS officials say the move to online testing will allow
the organization to offer the test to more students. The Europeans counter
that the way ETS has introduced the new version has had the opposite

Because the old test was administered in dedicated testing centers, said
Mr. Johnson, of the Austrian Fulbright group, "students could take the
test pretty much on demand -- the centers were open every working day of
the year." But "because the Internet-based test is hosted by institutions,
you have to ride on their infrastructure," he said. ETS views that
dependency as a benefit. "Any college or university that has a computer
lab can become a Toefl test center, " said Thomas Ewing, a spokesman.
"That opens up thousands of potential test sites around the world, and
that's where we see even more access for students."

ETS and its critics agree that increasing access to higher education is
the overarching concern. The question is how, and for whom. "By using the
Internet," said Mr. Hunt, "it will allow us to offer the test in certain
remote areas where it's not possible to do paper-based tests now." Mr.
Johnson, speaking for the Europeans, disagreed. "ETS is supposed to be
providing access to institutions of higher education," he said, "and it's
actually limiting access."

More glitches almost certainly lie ahead as ETS begins offering the new
test in other countries. Mr. Hunt acknowledged that there may be "growing
pains," but said the company takes the criticism seriously. "I hope I've
conveyed that," he said, "with the efforts we've taken to try and address
these shortfalls." He also apologized "for any inconvenience that we've
caused students or their institutions." "We hope it will be better in the
coming months," said Mr. Roujou de Boube, of France's Fulbright
commission. "It cannot be worse."

Copyright  2005 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

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